I remember when I was turning 16. I agonized about having a Sweet Sixteen; even though I like parties, I don’t always love being the center of attention. Ultimately, I did decide to have one, and I don’t regret it. Sweet Sixteen parties have become a ubiquitous part of American teen girl culture as a status symbol thanks to My Super Sweet 16. If you can’t do it in a grand way, then why even bother?
Mahalia Harris, the Black, queer teen at the center of Camryn Garrett’s new YA novel Friday I’m In Love (yes, like the song by The Cure), wants to throw a big Sweet Sixteen like her best friend Naomi did. The thing is, Mahalia and her mom can’t afford it, no matter how much she wants one. Money has always been an issue for them, but Mahalia is determined to find a way to celebrate something. She may have missed the window to celebrate her birthday, but she has an ever better idea: What if she throws herself a coming out party? It’s going to take a lot to make it happen, but if she can pull it off, it’ll be perfect. This party will be even bigger than any Sweet Sixteen could ever be.
The odds are against Mahalia from the very beginning when it comes to her party. She really can’t afford it. As Naomi continually points out, Mahalia and her mom are barely making ends meet; she has to work part time at a local organic grocery store to pay for her phone and gas for the car she shares with her mom. Parties like the one she wants to throw don’t come cheap, which she soon realizes. Even when her mom decides to match whatever she can raise, it’s still A LOT of money. But that isn’t going to stop Mahalia, even if it seems impossible. She needs this party to work. It just has to.
At Naomi’s party, Mahalia meets a mysterious (but beautiful) girl in the bathroom. The girl helps her fix her smudged makeup, but before Mahalia can get her name, she’s gone. Just when all hope is lost, the mystery girl shows up that Monday in Mahalia’s history class. We love a good rom-com moment! Her name is Siobhan, and she’s just as dreamy as Mahalia remembers. There’s only one problem: Even though she’s only recently moved from Ireland, she’s already dating BMOC (big man on campus) Danny, who is the most annoying white boy Mahalia has ever dealt with. Things only get more complicated when the three of them are forced to work together on a history group project. The more time the girls spend together, the more complicated things get.
One of the things Garrett does best in Friday I’m In Love is capture the heady experience of a teenager falling for someone. I was immediately transported back to high school when reading. Mahalia isn’t obsessed with Siobhan, but it’s the high of someone awakening those feelings in you. They’ve only recently gotten to know each other, and Mahalia ropes Naomi into helping her create a playlist for Siobhan. Is it a little over the top? Well sure, but have you ever met a queer girl who’s met a new love interest? It tracks.
In the story, Mahalia never really mentions having crushes on any specific girls in the past; the only other queer experience you hear about is the first girl she kissed at summer bible camp. While it’s not explicitly stated, I get the feeling that Siobhan is her first real crush, and the vibe is very cute.
Teenage love is endearing, especially in rom-com form. It’s not an insta-love situation for both of them, and Garrett gives care to the journey of teenage feelings. Siobhan is on her own journey and, to her credit (and sometimes detriment), Mahalia doesn’t try to force anything. The girls form a fairly easy friendship, freaking out over the SATs and bonding over hamburgers on the beach. I enjoyed watching them learn about each other and themselves through their budding relationship.
Mahalia’s relationship with her best friend Naomi reminds me of my own high school best friends. Naomi has a very different life from Mahalia: Her parents are married with well paid professional jobs, and she is well liked and popular. She works with Mahalia at the grocery store, but unlike her bestie, she doesn’t have problems with their boss or the customers. Naomi teases Mahalia for her (excellent) taste in 80s and 90s music, but still offers critiques on Siobhan’s playlist. She is initially very supportive of Mahalia’s desire for her party, suggesting venues, buying decorations at Target, and taking her dress shopping. As time goes on though, she becomes less supportive, putting a strain on their relationship.
Garrett doesn’t shy away from the struggle of their financial dynamic. Mahalia is painfully aware of Naomi’s family’s lack of strife, especially when she and her mom go through so much. You can tell it bothers her, but she’s willing to put it aside because Naomi’s family is always so good to her. She eats dinner with them often, and they always make her feel welcome and accepted. But things aren’t so easy when Naomi makes well meaning comments about Mahlia’s financial situation in regards to her party.
Even though Naomi had taken her to a very expensive dress store, she balks when Mahalia spends a few hundred dollars on the handmade rainbow confection dress of her dreams. Eventually, Mahalia does say something, which causes tension for the friends. I do wish that Garrett gave that confrontation a little more attention. Yes, they’re teenagers, but they’re old enough to have an honest conversation about how Naomi’s privilege affects their friendship.
The thing is, for most of the book, Naomi is the only one who knows that Mahalia likes girls and is throwing a coming out party, not a belated Sweet Sixteen. Mahalia wants to use the party to tell her mom the truth about her sexuality. Her mother is religious enough that the topic of sexuality is a tricky one to navigate.
Again, Garrett doesn’t shy away from the hard parts. Mahalia’s relationship with her mother is complex and layered. Her mother had her at 16, her parents aren’t together anymore, and her dad has a new family. They are always hanging on by a thread, and while it keeps them close, it also pushes them apart. Garrett is careful not to move into maudlin or preachy territory when it comes to the precarious financial situation of the family, but she doesn’t gloss over it either. Mahalia is painfully aware how they are one crisis away from being in real dire straits. And when that crisis happens, Mahalia reacts in a very typical way for a teenage girl: She freaks out. She sees her party dreams disappearing and lashes out at her mom. It’s painful to read, but it feels right.
The scene where Mahalia comes out to her mom is painful but honest. Unlike a lot of other teen coming out stories, it doesn’t go the way she would have hoped, but she knew the risk because of her mother’s religious conviction. Still, it doesn’t make it hurt any less, and that hurt is palpable through the pages of the book. I wanted to reach through and hug her.
Friday I’m In Love is a rom-com though, and even among all this conflict, there’s still plenty of the lighthearted stuff. As Mahalia and Siobhan get to know each other, you can see both of them come out of their shells. Siobhan opens up about how hard it is to be biracial and new to the country, while Mahalia opens up about her difficult relationship with her dad. The girls spend time at the dog park with Siobhan’s puppy Doodle, and bond over music. It truly is so sweet to see them getting to know each other.
And even though many things go wrong, at the end of the day, not only does Mahalia get the girl, she gets the party, too.