CW: Homophobia, transphobia, forced outing, deadnaming, parental abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol use, cyberbullying
I have put off writing this book for far too long because I wasn’t sure how to put into words how I felt about this book, a book that’s not for me, but that I feel so incredibly happy to have read. But as a much wiser friend is so fond of telling me — the only way to do the thing is to do the thing. So. Today we’re going to do the thing and talk about why I loved Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender and why I think you will, too.
To start, I want to lay out what this review won’t be speaking too: how authentic Felix’s experiences as a Black, queer, trans demiboy are depicted in the story. I’m not a black trans man and as such, I lack the experiences necessary to evaluate those aspects. But I will go ahead and point you to two amazing reviews from folks who can more directly speak to one or both of these identities, as well as push-back from the author against a review Kirkus did of Felix Ever After that was deeply problematic and hurtful in the framing and languaging used to talk about this book. I also want to note that because Felix’s pronouns are he/they, I’ve endeavored to use both throughout this review!
All that being said, what I will speak to is how much I adored Felix as a character, and how hard it was to watch him make the kinds of choices teenagers make, to watch the various ways he put his heart on the line over and over again with various degrees of care and awareness. When we start the story, Felix is an out trans boy at a prestigious art school who walks into the summer session and finds posters of their pre-transition identity posted in the entryway, pictures posted with his deadname. It’s a disgusting act of violence against Felix, that pushes him first into revenge and then into a kind of reflective motivation when he decides to make self-portraits the subject of his senior portfolio. This journey, from revenge to the realization that revenge won’t necessarily fix anything is such a perfect adolescent lesson to learn, and the stakes around Felix’s realization (he needs to nail his portfolio to secure a scholarship to college) make it feel that much more timely.
This is a young adult book that feels like it’s got teenagers at the helm, which isn’t always the case in the category. This book is messy, twisting backward and forwards on what you think it’s going to be in a way that made it feel, to me, like a delightfully surprising take on a classic trope. Not all of its characters are likable, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re supposed to be flawed, struggling, figuring-it-out teens, and this book gives them the space to be that all over the page. And in that, Teenage Me felt absolutely seen.
I was maybe 10% into this book when I asked several friends if this was an enemies to lovers book (I didn’t know anything going into reading it, outside of Felix getting their happily ever after). ‘Keep reading’ they said. So of course, I did. And I did. And I did. And two days later I realized that my first emotional read of the book was so off. Which, in my reading, was 100% on purpose.
Kacen creates a friendship between Felix and his best friend Ezra that is so incredibly soft and lived in, the kind of casual intimacy that forms between the people who know you best, that it’s impossible to imagine it being any other kind of dynamic. And we see it a moment when a dozen little pinpricks start to join up into a larger wound: Ezra’s friendships with people hostile to Felix’s trans identity, the pressures of differing life paths after graduation, Felix’s growing understanding of Ezra’s privilege and the ways it makes their otherwise fairly similar lives very, very different.
“Ezra gets to have a midlife crisis at the age of seventeen because of his privilege and his family’s wealth. Me? I have to figure out what I want to do and work my ass off for it if I want to have a chance at any sort of future.”
On top of all of this, Felix is redefining his gender identity, from boy to demiboy, and this process pushes him into new queer spaces and communities that call really deft attention to some of both the camaraderies and disparities between older and younger members of the queer community. It’s a subtle aspect of the book but one I really appreciated.
Of course, because we’re only ever in Felix’s head, so much of this story sits on Felix’s shoulders, his ability to bring us with them as they go through a swamp of good and bad decisions. This will vary by reader but I fell head over heels for Felix, and Ezra, and Leah, and the other people in Felix’s world. Even the nasty ones, Marisol and Declan, Felix’s microaggressive father and absent mother — Callander brings them to life and uses them to add complexity to the novel that makes the 368 pages fly by. The entire book feels like an origami flower, a distinct whole, segmented and pieced out only to be folded back together into something beautiful.
But that’s what this book is. Or, perhaps a better metaphor would be the flower crown Felix wears on the cover — a collection of beautiful, budding details, thorns of conflict, offshoots and tiny branches into college acceptances, parent-teenager relationships, the every-day politicization of queer and Black lives.
I’m not flaunting anything. I’m just existing. This is me. I can’t hide myself. I can’t disappear. And even if I could, I don’t fucking want to. I have the same right to be here. I have the same right to exist.”
And all of it wrapping around Felix himself, the star at the center of this book’s universe. There are a million and one reasons to pick up this book, but the most resounding of all will always be Felix, after all.