How to Be Brave: A Novel by E. Katherine Kottaras
Release Date: November 3rd 2015
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Reeling from her mother's death, Georgia has a choice: become lost in her own pain, or enjoy life right now, while she still can. She decides to start really living for the first time and makes a list of fifteen ways to be brave - all the things she's wanted to do but never had the courage to try. As she begins doing the things she's always been afraid to do - including pursuing her secret crush, she discovers that life doesn't always go according to plan. Sometimes friendships fall apart and love breaks your heart. But once in a while, the right person shows up just when you need them most - and you learn that you're stronger and braver than you ever imagined.
I’m a bit mixed on how I feel about How to Be Brave. There are so many good things about this book, but at the same time there are some problematic things as well. The heart of the story is about Georgia and her dealing with the grief of her mother’s death. In a note that Georgia forces her to write, her mother tells her to do everything and to be brave while doing it. This sets Georgia to make a list with her best friend, Liss, of 15 things she’s always wanted to do/thinks she she should do.
The list itself is fine, but I questioned how the list made her tailspin out of control. Georgia is painted as a good girl who rarely, if ever gets into trouble. However, one day of cutting class and eating a bite of pot brownies sends her off the deep end. After that first time, she states she doesn’t cut too much “just once or twice a week”;getting high is the main event for these days as well. Last time I checked 2 times a week, even for a couple of weeks, is a lot. And the thing is she doesn’t stop on that day she’s called out by the teacher. As a goody-goody, it just seems so out of character that she would have a 180 that fast. Being brave or not, just seems like a really quick spiral and slightly unrealistic that no one at school would notice how many days are adding up and not mentioning something more about it. Her dad doesn’t even find out for another month and a half later when her art teacher calls and rats her out. (At least about the cutting class, the pot-use doesn’t come until much later)
The relationships (family, friends, & romantic) ring quite true. I love the ups and down of her and Liss’ friendship. Even their fight was highly realistic. Who wouldn’t get mad at a friend for screwing up like Georgia did, even if the bad pot was to blame. I love how honest Liss always is with her. She doesn’t sugarcoat anything, which makes her an often abrasive, but awesome character. And her relationship with her father. That whole having a parent be in your life, but not really seeing you and expecting you to be something that you’re not. I’m sure every teen can relate to that. It wasn’t even that he didn’t care/had a bad relationship, her dad was just too busy to see the truth. It was obvious that he loved her, he simply needed to be more proactive in her life, especially now that her mother is gone.
The idea of weight is where we get back into the problematic area. I want to start with Georgia first. She’s a size 16 and considered fat. I have no problem with that. As someone who fluctuates between a size 16 or 18, I do consider myself fat. However, it’s the descriptors that follow that size 16 that don’t work. First passage appears on 27
…I hoist my one-hundred-and-blah-de-blah self (the exact number is irrelevant and supersecret)…
This is where height is totally needed. If you’re say me, at 5’6, well, I was a size 16 at 220. However, if Georgia is 5’3 or shorter than it’s plausible. This is why height is so, so, so important. They paint a more accurate, although still not perfect, picture.
Then on page 242 we get this
..It’s called minus ten pounds…By all official medical charts, I should technically lose another 15 pounds.
There is no way that someone who only needs to lose 25 pound is a size 16. Using myself as the example again, when I’m a size 16 to be considered normal by medical standards I would need to lose another 70 pounds. I know this will vary from person to person, but the numbers just don’t add up! [edit: I should have said again this is where we need height/body shape instead of just dismissing it completely. It’s still important to press that a size 16 isn’t the same for everyone. We need more as a reader than just a few random numbers to make it believable/realistic.]
However, on the flip side, some of the things that Georgia has to go through are so relatable. Of course, she’s teased, which can happen at any size, but there’s a scene that took me straight back to my own childhood
I was twelve and I couldn’t find a pair of jeans in the Macy’s junior department that could fit me. I sat on the floor of the dressing room, sobbing. She had to take me to the adult section, where all I could find were this ugly, old-lady jeans that gave me high water. pg 135
Oh man, I’ve been there. Although, for me it was that I was stuck in stretch pants (yes, I was a child of the late 80s/90s), but the rest rang true. When you’re a plus-size person shopping for clothes is so hard. A+ to Kottaras for capturing that so well. There are also plenty of passages where weight does not hold Georgia (or her mother) back from living life. And by the end, Georgia seems pretty solid in the skin she’s in.
While I’m on weight, I would be remiss not to talk about her mother. This is a spot where I wish there was more information on her mother. We know that she’s a size 24, but no height or weight mentioned. We know that she’s been sick with diabetes, kidney failure, and heart problems for a long time. Many people say that they took her mother’s weight as the cause of all the health factors plus her death. I’m a bit torn on this one myself. The implications are definitely there, especially when you take in the fact that her mother’s doctor told Georgia “don’t let this happen to you.” However, fatshaming by doctors is a very real thing. I’ve seen it happen to so many of my friends (and to an extent myself) that it’s not even funny. And of course, diabetes is tied often to weight, but it’s not the only cause. I think the one passage that give me a little pause is the following:
She could have done it. She could have controlled her sugar and eaten right and walked more, like she said she was going to, but she never did. Instead, she let herself gain weight and she didn’t control her sugar….pg 256
There are so many ways to read it. You can read it as the weight caused it all. Or you could read it as something bigger. Why wasn’t she controlling her sugar? And was it just sugar in food or was she not taking her medication to get her balance right? There’s such a lack of information surround her mom and her health. With all the stereotypes that being overweight means you’re unhealthy, it’s easy to see her mom and her death as something gross. My gut says there must have been so much more going on, but with the lack of information it’s truly hard to say what.
There is also a bit where someone tries to commit suicide. I wasn’t going to mention this part, but it keeps nagging at me. For me, it felt like a plot device. How it happened and how Georgia was involved allowed her to vent her frustrations about her mother not owning up to her problems/making Georgia and her father handle the final, crucial decision. It felt a bit out of place and nothing more than a way to tie up some loose ends. However, I will fully admit that I may be highly sensitive to this topic and that many readers won’t give it a second thought.
I know that I’ve pulled out quite a bit in the problematic area, but truth be told I did enjoy the story. I want to end with one of my favorite quotes, and one of the many things that readers take away from this book
But being brave isn’t about living every minute exhilarated. It’s about waking up and knowing that despite the worry and the sadness and the deep, dark fear, you’re going to go forth anyway. That you’re going to try anyway. That you have choice, and you’re going to choose to live, today, bravely.
Final Verdict: A decent read, but not one without flaws. In fact, this will still be one I probably tell my teens to check out.