Title: The Exact Opposite of Okay (2018)
Author: Laura Steven
Publisher: Electric Monkey
Read: 14th – 18th May 2018
Genre: young-adult; contemporary
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“Izzy O’Neill here! Impoverished orphan, aspiring comedian and Slut Extraordinaire, if the gossip sites are anything to go by… Izzy never expected to be eighteen and internationally reviled. But when explicit photos involving her, a politician’s son and a garden bench are published online, the trolls set out to take her apart. Armed with best friend Ajita and a metric ton of nachos, she tries to laugh it off – but as the daily slut-shaming intensifies, she soon learns the way the world treats teenage girls is not okay. It’s the Exact Opposite of Okay.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
The Exact Opposite of Okay is a novel that, on the surface, could seem like a light, fun read – the cover is bright and attractive, but everything on it hints at the very real and serious story underpinning the plot of the book. Through blog entries compiled retrospectively by teenager Izzy O’Neill, The Exact Opposite of Okay charts the very public smearing of her name when photos emerge of her and a politician’s son getting hot and heavy on a garden seat at a party. What follows is an exploration of sexuality, hypocrisy, slut shaming, and the alleged “friend zone”, all of which begs the question – why is it somehow seen as “okay” for girls to be publicly humiliated and shamed for the very same act which boys are high-fived for by their peers. Why are girls held to some kind of “higher” standard of behaviour whilst boys are allowed to “just be boys”? Why is Izzy shamed for expressing her sexuality in a healthy way whilst nothing seems to be done to persecute or shame the person who hacked into phones in order to procure private photos and texts and then disseminate them on the Internet?
“[It may seem like we’re always eating, but that’s because we’re always eating.]”
One of the strengths of the novel is the cast of supporting (and not so supportive) characters that populate Laura Steven’s book, from Izzy’s friends Ajita and Danny, to her fantastically casual grandmother Betty who has raised her since Izzy’s parents die in a car accident some years earlier. For me, Izzy shares a little too much of her life with Betty (I’m not sure I’d tell my grandmother of a sex scandal but, sure, they are very close) but I enjoyed the fact that, even though she was elderly, Betty still had to work in order to bring money into the household to raise Izzy – that felt like a small detail which was very realistic, and kind of heartbreaking too. Similarly supportive was Izzy’s drama teacher, and it was lovely to see adults actually very much present in a YA contemporary – so easily do contemporary stories focus on the teenagers, neglecting the adults that necessarily must also inhabit their life, but The Exact Opposite of Okay proved that it can be done without being detrimental to the main storyline of Izzy. Elsewhere, there are the potential “suitors” in Izzy’s life – Carson, Vaughan, and (at least in his own head) Danny. I won’t spoil anything that happens with this trio but I will say that I love Laura Steven for including Danny’s butthurt nature and placing him as that Nice Guy™ who thinks he’s entitled to the girl because he’s known her for years and is suddenly in love with her. By doing this she really allowed for an interesting exploration of the idea of the “friend zone” and the rightful critique and criticism the entire concept deserves.
“I get why he’s lashing out. As a privileged white dude, he’s used to being able to buy whatever he wants. He lives in a country where even the presidency can be bought.
But he can’t buy my love. And that frustrates the hell out of him.”
There were a couple of bugbears I had with the novel though, which is why I gave it the star-rating I did. On several occasions, I was drawn out of the story immediately because of confusion as to where this was set – it said it was America, and the author has indicated that this is because she wanted to pick somewhere where revenge porn is still not illegal (because it has recently been made illegal in the UK), but a lot of Izzy’s turns of phrases sounded very English. There was just something about her inner monologue that sounded English, and not in a “British dialect” kind of way but in a way that betrays that Laura Steven is English but trying to write an American teen. It’s something that I would have thought an editor somewhere along the line would have picked up on and edited, but apparently not. It’s not an insurmountable problem, and it didn’t make me hate the novel, but it did jar me from the flow of the story quite a few times so I had to mention it here. Similarly, I found Izzy to be a little bit… much, at times; if I were in an iffy mood and I picked up the book, I found her (to put it bluntly) a bit over-the-top, a bit too much, and mildly annoying. I’m sure we all are exaggerated versions of ourselves when we write things online though, so the fact that this is framed as Izzy’s blog posts being collected into a manuscript somewhat overcame this problem. Ultimately, the message was the important thing, so a few off moments here and there didn’t dampen the overall effect and importance of the book for me.
“Basically, if you’re a woman, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Fans of The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot and the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison will find a firm friend in The Exact Opposite of Okay‘s Izzy O’Neill, a bold and honest heroine who refuses to quietly take the shit that society would shame her for and instead speaks up against the very society that allows such hypocrisy to reign.
“Bitches bite back. And men hate that. Society hates that.”