Born That Way is the first of a trilogy of stories about Sylvia, who is fourteen. It soon becomes obvious that Sylvia is not an everyday fourteen year old. She used to get on well with everyone at school, but lately it’s changed. Although everyone else in her class is growing up and entering puberty, Sylvia isn’t. She’s small: really small, and that’s now marking her out as different. What also becomes obvious during the book is that Sylvia’s parents have a great deal of idea of what’s going on in their own lives, and at work, but not a clue about Sylvia and what she’s going through. Sylvia knows things should be different:
“I’m a teenager with the body of an eight-year-old. I don’t mind so much that I’m not developed, but being short is a big problem for me.”
- particularly when your grandfather has promised you your dearest wish, a pony, when you as tall as his shoulder -
“That’s why I stretch, any chance I get. But what I really don’t understand is why my parents don’t say anything. It’s as though my mom is pretending I’m a normal, struggling teenager while my dad pretends I’m still a child. No wonder I feel confused all the time.”
Sylvia’s Mum is terribly, terribly concerned, because she’s a therapist, and so she has to be right in her diagnosis of what’s going wrong with Sylvia, which is light years away from the truth. The confusions this produces are pointed out with subtle humour: I love the way the story twists and turns its way to the truth, because we, the readers, are just as aware as Sylvia that someone needs to diagnose something, and soon.
There’s plenty of horse content too. Sylvia loves horses, but her mother persists in analysing Sylvia’s horse mania: is she afraid they’re going to divorce? Or is riding “an early adolescent phallic activity?” Dad’s response is “Oh, give me a break.”
Sylvia isn’t bowed down by her parents’ total inability to see what’s beneath their noses. She’s self-deprecating, funny, and she obviously got the observational gene that bypassed her parents. Susan Ketchen makes you root for Sylvia every step of the way. The whole book is peopled with characters you can imagine walking off the page and into your kitchen.
The best books to me are those I finish and immediately want to read again to find out what I missed; or those I actually read a few weeks ago, but can still remember when I come to do the review. This book succeeds on both counts. It’s a great read.
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Susan Ketchen: Born That Way
Oolichan Books, 2009: £7.80 (approx)
Age of main character: 14
Themes: genetic disorder, puberty