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Hayley Kiyoko’s Debut YA Novel Tells Queer Love Story Set in 2006

I first learned about Hayley Kiyoko in 2018 after seeing her perform her song “Curious” with Taylor Swift at Taylor’s Boston concert. After watching that clip an inordinate amount of times, I searched YouTube for more of her music videos. That was the first time I saw the music video for “Girls Like Girls.” The music video told a story of two girls falling in love with each other, and even though I was in my thirties at the time, I had never seen a music video like that before. So when I found out that the story from the video was being turned into a book, I was intrigued. And then when I found out that Hayley Kiyoko herself would be writing it, I was excited. Kiyoko is such a good storyteller; all of her music videos are mini movies. Girls Like Girls the novel was an enjoyable read.

Girls Like Girls tells the story of Coley, a girl who is forced to move to a small town in Oregon with her estranged father after the death of her mother. Not long after arriving, she meets Sonya and her group of friends. From the minute their eyes meet, they’re drawn to each other. The story takes place in the summer of 2006, which is a very specific time to use. The first time we read about Sonya is through a LiveJournal post and subsequent conversation she has with her friend group about what their summer plans are going to be. I appreciated the establishing of a specific period of time in the book, because it will change how you read the characters and story. We were all a little more innocent in 2006; social media was a very different landscape and we weren’t constantly plugged in all day (hell, I still had a flip phone that summer!).

I don’t really know much about the decision to set the story in 2006, but I do like the commitment to being as accurate as possible. After Coley hangs out with Sonya and her friends for the first time (which is kind of a disaster), Sonya writes her AIM screen name and phone number on Coley’s arm. AIM messenger was such a huge part of early aughts culture, and Kiyoko’s choice to include what might seem like a small detail is actually quite a big deal. I’m sure there are people out there who have NO IDEA what she’s even talking about, which is mind boggling to me, but I’m a Millennial in my late 30s, and I have to remember that there is a whole generation of adults who missed out on this particular pop culture moment. Another thing that gets a lot of facetime in the story is LiveJournal. Though the story is told mostly from Coley’s point of view, we get to learn more about Sonya through her LJ posts, some public, some private. I’ve read other books that are supposed to be set in a specific time and then don’t use enough cultural markers to make it feel necessary, and I’m glad that Kiyoko didn’t just choose a specific time period and then not follow through with it.

There is some heavy subject matter in this book. If you’ve seen the music video, you know that the relationship between the girls isn’t necessarily sunshine and rainbows. Coley is much more aware of her sexuality, and Sonya has to catch up. There’s a lot of internal homophobia on her part and external homophobia between her friends and family. If you’re looking for a fluffy romance, you’re not going to find it here. The relationship between the girls is a constant push/pull of emotions that feel right, even though they’re painful to sit through. How many times have we seen this story play out before? Surprisingly, that doesn’t make it boring or less interesting. It’s still incredibly painful to watch these two girls go through a traumatic relationship. To watch them break each other’s hearts time and time again. I really felt the sense of ache and longing each of them possessed.

But this isn’t just a story about the pain of loving someone who isn’t ready to love you back. This is also a story of loving yourself enough to fight. Coley has to learn how to rebuild herself after her mother’s death. She needs to remember that she is worthy of being loved, and being loved fully and out loud. When she gets a job at a local restaurant, it gives her the freedom to remove herself from Sonya’s friend group and find her own people. It’s through those friends that she remembers that she is worthy of love, and if Sonya isn’t that person, then she has to fully move on.

Sonya has to learn to fight back against the crush of what other people think. She is so worried that everyone will abandon her, and that may very well be true. But she will never be able to be truly happy if she is hiding a part of who she is. That’s the thing, Sonya is a smart girl. She knows that Trenton is a total piece of shit, but she doesn’t distance herself from him because she’s known him forever and he can occasionally be a good guy. She doesn’t try to do anything when her friends embarrass Coley. And she is so wrapped up in her own feelings that she can’t see how her inability to fight for what she wants only leads to more hurt feelings. It takes Coley being physically hurt by Trenton for Sonya to finally get the courage to do what she’s wanted to do the whole time. The characters are teenage girls, so their decision making skills are seriously lacking, but sometimes I couldn’t help but get frustrated. I’m just glad that eventually, she listens to her heart and says fuck you to expectations.

One of my biggest complaints is that I want to know more about the relationship Coley had with her mother. It is established that she had severe depression and died by suicide, something that very obviously and understandably affects Coley to her core. Since her mother was a single parent, they were incredibly close. While I do understand the choice for Coley to not want to reveal too many details to her new friends and even her dad, some moments of quiet reflection would have been nice. Otherwise, Kiyoko should have found a different reason to force Coley to move in with her dad. Killing off the mom felt more like a plot device instead of a plot point.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the development of Coley’s relationship with her father Curtis. She only refers to him by his first name, which makes a lot of sense. They haven’t had any interaction since she was three years old — they are effectively strangers. Coley’s whole life has changed, and their relationship isn’t easily won, which I appreciate. It’s hard for a middle aged man to suddenly find himself raising a teenage girl, he is absolutely going to fuck that up more often than not. Even a seasoned parent fucks that relationship up most of the time. Watching them stumble through provides a heartwarming space in a story that deals with some really deep subject matter.

The only part of Girls Like Girls that truly bothered me was the ending. I get what Kiyoko was going for, because the ending of the book and the music video are pretty much identical. But while it works when you’re telling the story in a visual medium, it doesn’t work as well in written form. There are ways to more effectively leave the story open ended, or imply that the ending of this story is really the beginning of a new one. It felt abrupt, especially for a book that is over 300 pages. A few extra sentences just to close the thought would have been enough.

If you’re looking for a YA book that reinvents the wheel, Girls Like Girls probably won’t be the book for you. But it is a solid debut novel from someone who isn’t an author, and if I’m being honest, it’s one of the better written celebrity fiction novels that I’ve read (and I’ve read Lauren Conrad’s YA series). It definitely reads like a celebrity debut, the pacing is a little off and the dialogue is a bit on the trite side, but it didn’t ruin my reading experience. Hayley Kiyoko had a tough job expanding a five minute music video into a novel that is over 300 pages. I do think it could have been shorter to give her a little less need for long exposition. But all in all, I really did enjoy reading it a lot.


Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko comes out tomorrow, May 30.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 121 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. have this on my tbr, and though it doesn’t really feel like my speed, i’m gonna read Lesbian Jesus anyway.

    appreciate the context; it’ll definitely make my read a better time :)

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