Asexuality in fiction: How to Say Goodbye in Robot (review)

I saw How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford on a list of books with (potentially) ace characters, and it was on the shelf at the library last time I went, so I figured I would check it out.

I’m going to keep this review as spoiler-free as humanly possible, but I will be quoting sections of the text and talking about some minor plot points.  If you don’t want to know anything about the book, you might want to go elsewhere.

Synopsis:

How to Say Goodbye in Robot follows Beatrice (Bea, for short), who has just moved from upstate New York to Baltimore.  Her father is a professor and moves their family a lot, so Bea has never really had any close friends.  However, Bea befriends Jonah (known as Ghost Boy because of his extremely pale complexion and emotional disconnect from everyone).  (Bea calls herself Robot Girl, because in an early scene her mother accuses her of being a robot with no human feelings.  Thus the title of the book.)  The storyline follows Jonah and Bea’s relationship as they call in to the same late-night radio show, navigate family issues, and finish their senior year of high school.

About the book as a whole:

Let’s start with the good: I liked a lot of the radio show subplot.  I liked how much of the storyline managed to avoid the YA romance tropes, and I liked that it portrayed a friendship between a guy and a girl that never strayed into romantic territory.  There are some nice bits of humour.

That said, How to Say Goodbye in Robot is what I like to call a YA Issues Book.  This book crams so many issues into 278 pages: mental illness, infidelity, underage drinking, absent parents, cheating on your date by snogging another girl at a party, bullying, physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, death, marital difficulties, and more!  Which wouldn’t be a problem, if any of them were given the page space they deserved.  The problem is that many of the Issues seem to just pop up to make the story MORE DRAMATIC, and are never dealt with meaningfully.  Many of the Issues are resolved in a neat (and somewhat unbelievable) bow at the end of the story, which kind of annoyed me as well.

Additionally, I found all the characters kind of flat.  I’m pretty picky about well-rounded characters in fiction, to be honest, so maybe other readers wouldn’t be as bothered.  However, many characters fulfill set roles rather than having any sort of personality.  For example, there’s a prominent character suffering from mental illness (it’s not entirely clear what kind of mental illness, although they are taking anti-depressants), who is relegated to the role of “the crazy one.”  Which I think is pretty supremely unfortunate as well as kind of boring storytelling–I really wanted to know more about the character’s motivations beyond “they’re doing it because they’re crazy”!  Jonah’s father is “the mean, bitter dad” while Bea’s father is “the absent dad.”  Even the two main characters are pretty flat, which meant that it was difficult for me to remain interested in the storyline.

You can find much more detailed reviews of the whole book elsewhere, so let’s get to what most of you are probably reading this for:

About the portrayal of asexuality/unconventional relationships:

Although the text never explicitly states the sexuality of either of the main characters, there’s plenty of support in the text to read Jonah as ace (and probably aro as well).  For example, in a scene a little less than halfway through the book, the following exchange takes place:

“So why don’t you go out with him?” [Myrna] asked.

“Jonah?  I do like him,” I said.  “I like him a lot.  He’s my favorite person in the whole city of Baltimore.  Maybe the world.”

“So what’s the problem?” Myrna said.  “Sounds like love to me.”  She lowered her voice.  “Is he–you know–funny?”

“He’s very funny.”  Then I realized my mistake.  “Oh, you mean gay.  Um, I don’t think so.”  I’d never really thought about it.  Was Jonah gay?  Did he like girls?  I had no idea.  He never talked about boys or girls, except to say how much he didn’t like them.  He was an equal opportunity disliker.  (134)

Jonah shows basically no interest in other human beings–with the exception of his (dead) twin brother and Bea.  He seems to actively dislike basically everyone; in a scene near the end of the book, he screams, “If the whole human race was annihilated and I could save one person, I wouldn’t save ANYONE” (224).  While he does yell that in a fit of rage and heartbreak, he does seem to have a total lack of interest in anyone else even when he’s not smashing things in anger.

…of course, you could argue that he’s just putting up walls between himself and other people.  And while I can definitely see that as an argument to be made, I also think that if that were true, he probably wouldn’t have befriended Bea.  In fact, given [spoilers for the end of the book], I would think that if he were putting up walls between himself and everyone else, he would have ignored Bea for the entire book (creating a much shorter and less dramatic story).  Also, there isn’t anything in the book to suggest he isn’t ace.  He never shows any interest in girls: there are no lingering glances in hallways, no sighs over lost loves…which, let’s be honest, is pretty unusual for YA protagonists.

Bea, on the other hand, I can’t really read as ace.  Although she is more interested in her relationship with Jonah than romantic relationships with other boys, she is interested in boys and dates two of them over the course of the book.  She does find a least one guy physically attractive, and describes that attraction in terms that make me think it’s sexual attraction.  Bea seems pretty apathetic about everyone other than Jonah, but it seems less like she has no attraction and more like she’s just not interested in acting on that attraction.

Even if you don’t think either Bea or Jonah is ace, their relationship fits the definition for a queerplatonic relationship to a T.  Let’s look at some quotes.

At first even Bea isn’t sure what their relationship is:

And besides, I couldn’t explain it.  Some of it, I didn’t understand myself.  We were best friends.  Were we in love?  Were we headed that way?  I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to bring it up with him.  It was like the one thing we couldn’t talk about.  Our friendship was delicate, like a bubble, and I was afraid it would pop if I asked the wrong question.  Where is this going? definitely felt like the wrong question. (101)

Later in the book, she tries to explain it to another girl:

“[Tom] thinks there’s something between you and Jonah,” Anne said.  “Once I reassure him that there isn’t, I bet he’ll ask you out.  So what should I tell him?  Is there, or isn’t there?”

Is there or isn’t there what?  How do you define a boyfriend?  If a boyfriend is the first person you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last face you see before you fall asleep, then I was in love with Jonah.  But if a boyfriend had to involve physical chemistry and kissing and sex and stuff, then, no, he wasn’t that.

“It’s too complicated for yes or no,” I said. (103)

Jonah doesn’t think it’s a romantic relationship or a regular friendship either:

Boyfriend is such a stupid word,” Jonah said.  “No, I’m not your boyfriend.  I thought we were way beyond that.  What we are cannot be described with trivial words like boyfriend and girlfriend.  Even friend doesn’t come close to describing it.” (113)

Eventually Bea gives up on trying to describe it:

You are the only person at Canton–or anywhere, really–that I care about at all.  We’ve been through a lot together this year, and you are the closest friend (forgive the inadequate word, but we never came up with a substitute) I have ever had. (234)

Compare those quotes with a lot of the writings on queerplatonic relationships, and you will find relationships and partners described using the exact same language.

Which is great!  I mean, how often are queerplatonic relationships given the front seat in YA books?  How often are queerplatonic relationships given the front seat in books, period?

…the only problem is that their relationship is not at all healthy.  Jonah treats Bea like a doormat, using her when she can help him and ignoring her otherwise.  Their entire relationship seems to revolve about what Jonah wants and what Jonah needs, even if that runs contrary to Bea’s desires.  Additionally, Jonah goes out of his way to isolate Bea from other people, breaking up her dates and giving her the silent treatment when she collaborates with some students he doesn’t like on a group project for class.  Bea is willing to throw away all her dreams just to make him happy, and she is unable to imagine a future without him at the center of it.

Throughout the book I kept hoping and hoping that she would realize how badly he was treating her and SAY something, but instead she keeps crying at night and talking about how hard life is for Jonah and how she just wishes he would talk to her.  Even at the end of the book, it doesn’t seem as though she has realized what a dysfunctional relationship they have, leaving the reader with the message that You Too Should Strive to Have Such a Beautiful, Unique Relationship in Which the Person You Care About Most Manipulates You, Treats You Like a Doormat, and Ignores You When He Feels Like It.  Great message, kids!

The other relationships in the book aren’t much better.  Bea dates two guys over the course of the book–the first tells her that it’s the law for her to go out with him (WHAT) and then ditches her on a date to make out with some other random girl, and the second is a Nice Guy who pesters her and “gradually wear[s] down [her] resistance” (278) until she agrees to go out with him.  Gross.  There is also, as I mentioned in that big list of Issues at the top of this post, someone who is cheating on their spouse.  Oh, and there’s an adult Nice Guy who pesters a woman until she agrees to go out with him.  In fact, now that I think about it…I’m not sure there is a single healthy relationship in the entire book.  Wow.  That’s awkward.

So, basically, Jonah is quite possible ace and aro and the primary relationship in the novel is definitely a queerplatonic relationship.  But given Jonah’s antagonism toward everyone who isn’t Bea, and his manipulation of Bea’s feelings for his own gain, I can hardly commend him as a poster boy for asexuality.  Nor can I, in all good conscience, recommend Jonah and Bea’s dysfunctional and potentially abusive relationship as a good example of queerplatonic relationships in fiction.  While it is an accurate portrayal of a queerplatonic relationship, I wouldn’t want to hand the book to someone and say, “This is an example of what a queerplatonic relationship is like,” any more than I would want to hand a book about domestic abuse to someone and say, “This is what a marriage is like.”

I think maybe I got my hopes up a little too much, but even putting aside the abusive relationships, it’s kind of a mediocre teen novel.  It seemed like the author had a lot of ideas and tried to cram them all into the same novel, which just…felt really cluttered and flat.  I’m really glad that someone has written a YA novel about a queerplatonic relationship, and hopefully it will open the door to others like it (just healthier, please).

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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4 Responses to Asexuality in fiction: How to Say Goodbye in Robot (review)

  1. Aydan says:

    I am really glad you wrote about the problems with their relationship. I liked the *idea* of their relationship, but the whole time I was reading it, I kept seeing how unhealthy it was.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I kept wanting Jonah to do SOMETHING to support Bea, and when Things Started Going Down with Her Parents, I thought, “Aha! Finally time for him to step up to the plate in return for all the times she’s supported him!” But…nope. Which is a shame, because the author could have done SO MUCH with their relationship, but instead we got…dysfunction. (Actually, the more I think about their relationship, the more frustrated I get, because Jonah KNEW FROM THE START that this was going to be a short-term relationship, and yet went out of his way to alienate Bea from everyone else and GAH.)

      I guess at this point we get to hope that someone takes the really good idea of their relationship and translates it into a reality in another book. *sigh*

  2. Siggy says:

    I often perceive relationships in fiction (eg romcom films) to be dysfunctional, and I start anti-shipping them. Maybe this is finally the story where they break up, and all the weird romance tropes used earlier get deconstructed!

    Jonah sounds like… the platonic version of a Byronic hero? Is that right?

    • queenieofaces says:

      See, I don’t mind reading about dysfunctional relationships…when the narrative recognizes that they ARE dysfunctional (and there is a purpose to their being dysfunctional, aside from saying, “Wow, dysfunctional relationships really suck, huh?”). My problem is when the narrative treats a dysfunctional relationship as though it is the ~Paragon of True Wuv~ even though it’s abusive and manipulative and all kinds of awful. Which is basically what a lot of romcoms do and also what this book does.

      Except for the sexually seductive/sexually dominant bits, he certainly sounds like a Byronic hero!

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