If I’m Being Honest

by Emily Wibberly
April 23, 2019 · Viking Books for Young Readers
Contemporary RomanceRomance

If I’m Being Honest is a contemporary YA version of The Taming of the Shrew with a candy-floss surface and surprising hidden depths. Our story begins in a prep school in Los Angeles. Cameron is super popular. Query – how come in media (Heathers, Mean Girls) popular girls don’t seem to have many actual friends? It’s obvious from the first page that no one, with the possible exception of two characters named Morgan and Elle, actually like her. So how can she be called popular if everyone hates her? I didn’t understand high school when I was there and hindsight hasn’t made things any more clear.

Anyway, at home Cameron is basically the parent to her mom, a perpetually unemployed actress. Cameron desperately wants to impress (and thereby win the attention of) her dad, a mega-CEO who lives across the country and never talks to her. At school, she is known for high achievement and being mean, which Cameron thinks of as brutal honesty. Cameron has had a crush on her classmate Andrew forever, and now that he’s a varsity athlete she’s ready to make her move. Alas, Andrew overhears Cameron being mean to another classmate, Paige, and he rejects Cameron.

In an effort to win Andrew, Cameron decides to tame herself (they are reading Taming of the Shrew in English). Gradually, her efforts to tame herself grow more complicated as fake friendships become real, long-standing alliances are questioned, and Cameron grapples with just how ‘tame’ she wants to be.

This is technically more of a rom-com than a romance novel, with Cameron as the narrator. In order to make amends and impress Andrew with her new reformed self, she finds herself having to apologize to Paige and then to Paige’s brother, Brendon (Cameron saddled him with the nickname ‘Barfy Brendon’ in seventh grade). Paige and Brendon see her apology for the fake attempt to impress Andrew that it is, which means that Cameron has to be nice in actions, not just words, which means spending time with them.

It turns out that she really likes Paige and Brendan, and she also likes this kinder version of herself. However, she also misses being bluntly honest. What, if anything, does Cameron want to keep of her pre-tame personality? Is it possible that she is actually falling in love with Brendan?

This book is a romance (Brendan is, of course, secretly hot and not-secretly brilliant) but it’s more about learning to change in positive ways while staying true to yourself. That can seem contradictory, but Cameron learns that finding that weird balance is crucial to empowerment. I loved how the discussions about the play are woven into the novel, with Cameron’s friend Elle standing up for Katherine and reminding Cameron of how building new relationships can damage old ones and how motivations are important. Is Cameron changing for Andrew, for Brendan, for her Dad, or for herself?

I ended up feeling intense empathy for Cameron, who is disappointed by both of her parents in different ways, and who learns from them that persistence and achievement is everything and yet never enough. The combination of copying her father’s verbal brutality and needing to release pent-up anger makes Cameron’s cruelest outbursts make sense, even as we see the damage done by these outbursts. Watching her become less shallow and more nuanced and trusting is deeply satisfying.

I wasn’t surprised by the overall arc of the book, but I was happily surprised at how it got there. I enjoyed the romance. Brendan and Cameron make surprising sense together and bring out each other’s best qualities. However, what sticks in the mind isn’t the romance but rather Cameron’s evolution from a ruthless person to someone who mingles honesty with empathy, and who is empowered to be the person she wants to be.

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