Noteworthy

  • By Riley Redgate
  • Harry N. Abrams
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Monica Hogan
  • July 1, 2017

A young girl struggles to stand out while hiding in plain sight.

Riley Redgate’s young-adult novel Noteworthy uses the competitive world of a cappella singing to explore universal coming-of-age themes such as pursuing dreams, crafting identity, and yearning to belong.

Budding singer Jordan Sun craves the spotlight, but she’s not above fading into the background when people speculate about why she broke up with her boyfriend, or why she doesn’t have the money to keep pace with the rest of her boarding-school cohort.

A Chinese-American scholarship student studying theater at a prestigious arts school in Upstate New York, Jordan needs a starring role in a major production to fill out her résumé and to prove to her mother that flying back and forth from San Francisco is worth the expense to a family with a history of relying on food stamps.

But at the start of her junior year, Jordan is passed over once again for even a walk-on role in the high school musical. The only opportunities left to her are for Greek monologues and experimental one-act plays.

When Jordan sees a call for an opening in a boys’ a cappella group called the Sharpshooters, she decides she has nothing to lose. She borrows a wig and a set of male clothes from the drama department, lowers her voice, calls herself a boy named Julian, and auditions as a tenor 1.

After she’s initiated into the group, she’s determined to pose as a boy long enough to help the Sharpshooters win a spot touring Europe with a celebrated pop star. The school-wide a cappella competition is slated for early December.

Cue the ticking clock.

Maintaining her charade for three months requires unbelievably good fortune, but the author does a good job of giving Jordan cover. By the luck of the draw, Jordan wins a coveted single dorm room for the year. She takes theater classes in the halls of campus opposite those of the music department, where most of the boys in the a cappella group study. And she hasn’t maintained close ties with her former female roommates. Perhaps nobody from one world will recognize her in the other.

The trope of girl posing as boy is tried and true, with tales told by everyone from Shakespeare (As You Like It) to Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yentl the Yeshiva Boy). In posing as Julian, contemporary Jordan receives aid that her predecessors didn’t have access to; namely, online crossdressing tips.

After she does a search for ways to flatten her chest, Jordan finds herself on a site for transgender youth transitioning from female to male. Her first reaction is the guilt of voyeurism and appropriation. “I felt like I’d edged into a place that was not mine,” she says.

She worries that if she’s caught in a lie, other members of the a cappella group might carry their anger at her “over into a situation with someone trans who was just living their life.” Her art-school classmates are so overwhelmingly liberal, however, that she can’t imagine anyone on campus having such a reaction.

“Or anywhere, really. It was a strange thing to have an opinion on anyone else’s existence.”

As Julian begins to bond with the Sharpshooters and sees them as friends and individuals rather than merely a means to an end, Jordan feels another form a guilt, that of holding her true self back from those who are sharing themselves.

When a misunderstanding leads her friend to come out to her as gay, Jordan stays mum about her own gender and sexual fluidity. She’s constantly evaluating how she’s being perceived, how close she is to being found out.

The novel’s setting is lovely and detailed, with moody descriptions of an aging campus and its decades of meticulous upkeep and quiet disrepair. The Sharpshooters’ rival group, the Minuets, meets in a long-abandoned movie theater tucked into the woods on the far edge of campus, and there is real menace in the scenes that play out there.

But much of the danger implicit in the plot is of the protagonist’s own making: Will she be found out, and what will she lose if she is? In the backstory, far from Jordan’s day-to-day life but always on her mind, are her parents’ money struggles over rent increases and medical bills and lost jobs. The story’s one true villain is a legacy student who feels slighted when he loses a spot with the Sharpshooters and forever after seeks to avenge his perceived betrayal.

Julian enjoys an ease and a confidence as a male that Jordan never did as a girl. Under the rituals and routines of her new group, she finds a comfortable companionship, sneaking out late at night and drinking under the stars. On one such night, she finds that she and her new friends have “locked the world out, frozen time, trapped a little idyll in the isthmus of the hourglass.”

You can’t ask for much more from a teenage friendship. Or a good book.

Monica Hogan is a writer based in Rockville, MD. Her work is included in The Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook, out this summer from Belt Publishing.

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