Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Genre: Contemporary, Realistic, YA
Rating: ★★★★★ | 4.5 out 5.0
warnings: biphobia, bullying, ED, homophobia
Etta Sinclair doesn’t fit in anywhere, not with the Disco Dykes, who turn against her when she begins to date a boy. Not at ballet, where she’s too curvy and defiant to follow the strict rules of the discipline. Not even at home, where her mother can’t even bring herself to say the word ‘bisexual.’ She is, as far as she can tell, Etta Not Otherwise Specified.
But when she hears of an opportunity to audition at Brentwood, a prestigious performing arts school in New York City, Etta sees it as her ticket out of her rural Midwestern town. But practicing for the audition brings her into the orbit of Bianca, a talented singer from Etta’s eating disorder recovery group. Bianca is sick, much sicker than Etta, and she may not even want to get better. But she’s the first person to love Etta without condition. Etta quickly becomes friends with Bianca, Bianca’s handsome older brother James, and James’ friend Mason. Being with them, though, makes Etta question some of her own assumptions, and question the way she thinks of herself and who is wants to be.
My major complaint with The Steep and Thorny Way was its lack of subtlety, but that was exactly what I loved about Not Otherwise Specified. Here, it becomes part of the character of the novel. Etta was brash and sarcastic in the most lovable way. She’s not the most conventional heroine––she’s not a virgin and not ashamed of it, and she’s hardly the shy pushover type, and sometimes she says things without thinking, but the most important thing is that the narrative never shames her for it. She can be a little abrasive, her relationships with her friends and family were sometimes tense, and she’s allowed to make mistakes, but she’s ultimately a good person. She’s funny and insensitive and vulnerable and strong, but she is a cohesive character.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the novel, given its relatively simple plot, but the characters’ complexity and the multiplicity they were allowed to inhabit without being portrayed as Bad People was what was at the heart of the story. To be frank, Bianca was the character I was most pleasantly surprised by, In a lesser novel, she would Inspire Etta To Be a Better Person and would undergo no arc of her own. In a lesser novel, she would be the Sick Girl and nothing else. And she is sick, there is no doubt she is sick and no effort to hide the fact that she might not be on the path to recovery, and that that’s not a decision her friends or family can make for her, no matter how hard they try. Yet she is indubitably her own person.
There is one group of people whose representation I was a little iffy about. Not being lesbian, I couldn’t say for sure, but the Disco Dykes run the chance of falling squarely into the ‘man-hating lesbian’ trope. Certainly within the narrative this is understood as a) part of their biphobia b) as a result of needing to band together against homophobia, but metatextually, it may have a significantly different impact. Their name, as well, is a reclamation of a slur, but even within the narrative world it’s given straight people license to call them d*kes. Spoken language doesn’t have capital letters––there’s no real difference between calling them a slur and calling them their group names. They are also the only major lesbian characters in the narrative.
Also, heterophobia? Really?
That said, I really enjoyed the novel. The depiction of eating disorders felt at once sensitive and straightforward, nuanced and empathetic without painting people with EDs as agency-less actors in their own lives. Etta is a protagonist who doesn’t make apologies for who she is, nor does the text require her to do so, which is really great given that the space she occupies is that of a curvy Black ballerina. The writing itself was vivacious and pulls the reader in easily, though it did run a little long, but not long enough to bother me. At times the narrative felt like it was trying to Do Too Much, but it never fell apart, which is all I’m looking for.
Ultimately, Not Otherwise Specified is one of the most envigourating novels I’ve read in a long time, even when it’s juggling heavy topics or hard themes.