Posted in Book Review

Review: Vanilla by Billy Merrell

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Vanilla by Billy Merrell, PUSH, 320 pp.

Rating: zero hearts

TW: rape culture, aphobia

I don’t like some books because they’re poorly written. I don’t like others because they are completely insensitive to the point that no amount of description or eleventh-hour redemption in the same of “character development” will save them for me. Billy Merrell’s young adult fiction debut Vanilla is an example of the latter.

The novel, written entirely in verse, is told from the perspectives of three gay boys who go to the same high school: Hunter, Vanilla and Clown/Angel. It centers around the development and destruction of a relationship between the title character and his boyfriend Hunter, who have been dating since middle school.  All three of the boys go by nicknames that attempt to be allegorical, but just come off as stereotypical and mildly offensive. Vanilla is the boy who is uncomfortable with having sex. Hunter is the predatory boy thirsty for a hookup. Clown/Angel is a drag queen struggling with gender identity and unrequited love. The result of never really using their real names was that each character felt like they ultimately lacked a separate identity. It felt like a failed and insincere attempt at allegory.

I was willing to give this book a chance, but was worried about its content from the moment its controversial summary popped up on Goodreads, especially with its indirect mention of an ace main character. When I received an arc at Bookcon, I decided I needed to read this and offer my opinion as an #ownvoices ace reviewer. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be, but within the opening ten or so pages, my fears were confirmed. My verdict on the book is that it is potentially damaging and dangerous for vulnerable and/or questioning teen readers. I hope that we, as a book community, can agree that ace readers, and gay aces in particular, deserve better representation than this that doesn’t consistently imply that we are lying to ourselves, just afraid or “innocent” without properly countering those dangerous stereotypes in the text.

At best, Vanilla is a misguided attempt by a gay author to understand asexuality. At worst, it’s an internally aphobic “love” story that exposes many aphobic critiques that ace people encounter on a daily basis. Merrell uses the word asexual frequently, especially in the last half of the book, and the representation is handled so recklessly and irresponsibly that it is powerless to mediate the aphobia rampant in the first half of the book.

What is aphobia exactly? It’s anything that expresses hatred, doubt, fear and/or dislike of aro and ace spectrum people.* It’s present throughout the book as a plot point, as a freaking plot point in the relationship between Hunter and Vanilla. Here are some examples from the text:

“I think of Vanilla and how vanilla he is

and I want to hold him and tell him

it’s okay if he says he isn’t ready,

even if I don’t believe him–

Or that if he isn’t ready,

It’s for all the wrong reasons.”

Okay, there is NO WRONG REASON not to want sex. None. Not wanting to have sex is a reason in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t know a person is ace and the person doesn’t yet know they are ace, it does not erase their asexuality. They are still asexual. So this passage is just a shitload of aphobia and rape culture and the worst part is that Hunter isn’t ever really forced to change or change his beliefs. He kind of accepts Vanilla’s asexuality by the end of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like enough because of passages like this.

“He gets so into it

That pulling him back from the brink

Takes every part of me

And every part of him, it seems,

So we never part

On purely sweet terms anymore.”

Ugh, more rape culture/abusive relationship description that never gets properly dealt with later in the book to qualify as a good story.

“‘It’s the perfect name for him,’ he says,

Winking at me like I’m in on it.

‘Such a sweet thing. So innocent.’

And I know by how Clown says it

That he’s calling me a prude.”

I can’t even believe I have to explain this in a book review, but infantilizing asexuals by calling them sweet and innocent is a dick move. And even though Clown/Angel helps Vanilla realize he’s asexual later in the novel, 1) they could have done it a lot sooner and prevented a lot of damage and made this a better story and 2) it’s still a dick move.

“‘I’m sex-positive, too,’ Vanilla says,

Like he’s chasing me. When all I wanted

Was a boyfriend who wouldn’t need to.

‘You’re sex-phobic,’ I say,

Because it’s what I believe.

What he’s all but called himself,

Claiming not to be ready.

Even though he masturbates.

Even though he knows how he feels.

Even though he loves me.”

Spoiler alert: you can masturbate, love someone and understand your feelings and still be asexual. Again, this is blatant aphobia that is never really dealt with. When Hunter and Vanilla do break up, it comes off as like Hunter is doing a favor for the both of them, like he’s the hero that’s going to save both of them and it literally made me sick.

One last quote:

“It breaks my heart to think he’s as serious

As I am, that he’s so afraid of sex

That he’d toss our love to the wolves.”

This quote makes me so effing angry because I just don’t understand how Hunter can be so freaking hard-headed and how an author could write this book about this shitty, abusive relationship and pass it off as this poignant, heart-wrenching love story. Being who you are isn’t tossing your love to wolves. Hunter being an aphobic and judgy person is what ultimately destroys it, but the text never confirms or validates that.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, some of the worst of the worst that I found. There’s another poem in the book called “Queen of Hearts” that was so aphobic I actually started crying while reading it. This book’s representation of asexuality was handled like we’re some kind of freak show to be observed and helped, that we are an inconvenience in a relationship for the most part. Vanilla thankfully finds someone at the end of the novel who understands him, but it was given so little page time, adding more insult to injury.  

Overall, this book was hard for me to read. The language is so unnecessarily physical and visceral. It felt more nostalgic than immediate. There were some parts that enjoyed, but overall this book is a hard pass for me.

I had other issues with this book. The way that the voice of each poem was separated was frustrating. Each character had poems in a different font. Not only did this strain my eyes while I was reading the book, but I often forgot who was who.

Moving into style, the poems were well written but some of them were so overly poetic and flowery that the characters’ voices got lost in the writing. The author should have spent more attention developing empathy for the orientation of one of his main characters than spending two stanzas developing some allegory or extended metaphor that ultimately didn’t make sense or contribute anything to the plot.

I usually don’t try to actively discourage people from reading a book, but if you are upset by rape culture and/or aphobia then I highly suggest you do not buy, support or pick up this book when it comes out in the fall. Spend your time supporting indie and self published asexual authors who are devoting their time to crafting well-rounded, multi-faceted ace characters with more empathy and compassion. And I know that by reviewing this book, I am largely shouting into the dark. Aces fighting against aphobia is comparable to David facing Goliath, but I will not put down my slingshot.

Regardless, Vanilla is expected to be released October 10, 2017.

*Please note that the use of terms like aphobia is also technically incorrect. While I have left my usage of the word in the review, going forward I am going to try to use the word amisia more, which is more sensitive to people who deal with actual phobias in the mental health sense and not the discrimatory one. 🙂

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Author:

Writer, avid reader, blogger, art history nerd, student journalist & editor, bookstore connoisseur, honeybee advocate. Proud Jersey Girl. Drew '17.

35 thoughts on “Review: Vanilla by Billy Merrell

    1. Thank you for reading! If you like verse novels I highly recommend The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan, anything by Sonia Sones and Skyscraper by Cordelia Jensen. 🙂

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      1. The Realm of Possibility is about interconnected lives of teenagers in the same high school. Skyscraper is about a girl dealing with the discovery of her father’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis in the 1990. And Sonia Sones writes about mental illness and messy relationships.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Well, hell. I saw two different blurbs circulating for this a while ago and one made it sound like there was relationship abuse while one did not. It’s good to know that there is some rape culture content especially irt an ace character in this so that I may avoid it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. (Since this blog is authored by two people, I’m going to make the statement that this is Caidyn writing.) I’m ace and those excerpts are upsetting. Especially since I went through a relationship where I was abused because the person claimed to understand I was ace, but obviously didn’t since they kept pressing sexual things. I’m sorry you had to read this and, while I may give it a go just to see if my opinions are the same as yours, it really sucks that this is the representation we get. And don’t let me go off about the masturbation thing. Empirical evidence says many aces masturbate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Caidyn! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I went through a similar relationship before I knew I was ace which made the book super upsetting for me. If you give the book a go, I wish you the best. I can also send you my copy if you’d like since I’m done with it! And ugh-right? Being ace is more about what you feel than what you do/don’t do. As for representation, we just have to support ace authors and their stories!!! 💜

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course, Taylor! This came up on my GR because someone mentioned your review in their review of this book, so I had to read the source, you know? I would love it if you could do that since I am interested in this book at least for ace representation and to formulate my own opinions. Sexual arousal =/= sexual attraction. If you want a good book that includes a wide variety of LGBT+ characters (including an ace) is Chameleon Moon by RoAnna Sylver. Fantastic book, although I’m not sure that sci-fi is your thing.

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      2. I’m not always into sci-fi but I just read 27 Hours by Tristina Wright, which has a great ace character and a diverse cast too!!! It comes out in October and my review will be up soon.

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      3. yeah. He wears an ace ring so he definitely STRONGLY ID’s as ace. There’s also some people (myself included) who id more strongly with their sexual orientation than their romantic one. There were also some points where I was like-this could be construed as romantic attraction or maybe he’s demiro or greyro but yeah. At least I know the author had ace sensitivity readers and it tries to be empathetic.

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      4. Yeah, that is pretty strong since you don’t see many aces outwardly claiming their sexuality like that. (Myself included in that.) That’s good the author did that! And hopefully in the case of Vanilla they decide to change stuff so it doesn’t seem aphobic and/or ignorant where it didn’t mean to be in the final product.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Haha. I wear a ring but I’m not out out technically. Yeah! She’s really really sweet. 🙂 I mean, he’d have to rewrite a large chunk of the book and I know his editor loves it so I’m doubting it but still hopeful.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Oh, that sucks. Such a promise about making a comment on how sexuality is fluid as one discovers themselves more, discovering that they’re ace. Instead it just comes off as you state in your review rather than positive.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this review (I stumbled on it while on Goodreads). I saw this book at ALA and snatched it up based on the blurb on the back cover (and the fact that the blurb was written by David Levithan, who is also the publisher). I was expecting great things. I’m only halfway through it but I had to seek out reviews, because the book is leaving me with such an “icky” feeling–I had to see if my gut reaction was right or if I was misreading (I believe this is the first book I’ve read featuring an ace character, and I don’t know any people who (openly, anyway) identify as ace, so this is all new for me). Anyway, long story short, I’m a branch manager and teen librarian at heart who was at ALA looking for ARCs to share with our customers, and sadly I don’t think Vanilla is one I can share in good conscience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Christi! Thank you so much for leaving such a thoughtful comment! I’m so happy you found my review, even if not for the best of reasons. If you’re looking for another book featuring an ace character, there is TASH HEARTS TOLSTOY by Kathryn Ormsbee. I know aro and ace spectrum friends who really enjoyed it even if I wasn’t the biggest fan. 27 Hours by Tristina Wright also has an amazing ace character and I highly recommend it! I hope these recs might be helpful for your teens, some of whom might ID as ace. If you are looking for resources on ace issues, @FYeahAsexual on Twitter is a great place to start and they have a list of 51 YA books with ace rep. 🙂

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  4. I’m sorry you had a bad experience reading this book, however I don’t think your literary criticisms are adequately justified. First off, you make a VERY gender-queer-phobic remark in one of your very first paragraphs, which I’m sorry, as someone trying to call out the supposed insensitivity of the author, is completely uncalled for.

    Second, the passages you directly quote are from a character who has no understanding of the circumstance and needs to go through the journey to finally get it. Those people exist. They are not a direct reflection of the author’s sentiments himself, and are not an indication that he is ok with that type of thinking, but rather has presented 3 unique self-identifying characters as they learn and come to understand who they are.

    I’m an LGBTQ kid, and I can say without a doubt that growing up was very difficult and trying to understand who I was, was problematic at best. I could never fully understand my feelings growing up and why I was so different. This book captures that experience so well. There’s a reason Vanilla doesn’t IMMEDIATELY identify as asexual early on in the book, and there’s a reason why there’s such resistance from Hunter. The story in many ways mimics heterosexual relationships between a man and a woman where the man realizes he’s gay but the woman is still in love with him–it’s a complicated scenario that requires a lot of understanding at a time when people’s feelings are hurt or they’re absorbed in their own world. It’s impossible to be completely understanding right off the bat. The story, wouldn’t be a story if Vanilla immediately knew who he was and Hunter’s reaction was: “Great, I completely understand!” That’s not a story–that’s an ideal. And like most ideals, they don’t exist. But what this book does do is work through the complicated situation that these boys find themselves in and shows how they work through it and find a balance in the end.

    You’re tirade to label this book as aphobic, I believe is uncalled for and unfounded.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my review. I read the book through my experience as an ace person and what I felt might be harmful to readers. There’s no right/wrong way to view it. Have a lovely day.

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