Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney C. Stevens
Release Date: August 22, 2017
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
As the tomboy daughter of the town’s preacher, Billie McCaffrey has always struggled with fitting the mold of what everyone says she should be. She’d rather wear sweats, build furniture, and get into trouble with her solid group of friends: Woods, Mash, Davey, Fifty, and Janie Lee.
But when Janie Lee confesses to Billie that she’s in love with Woods, Billie’s filled with a nagging sadness as she realizes that she is also in love with Woods…and maybe with Janie Lee, too.
Always considered “one of the guys,” Billie doesn’t want anyone slapping a label on her sexuality before she can understand it herself. So she keeps her conflicting feelings to herself, for fear of ruining the group dynamic. Except it’s not just about keeping the peace, it’s about understanding love on her terms—this thing that has always been defined as a boy and a girl falling in love and living happily ever after. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple.
Young Adult (YA)
Coming of Age
Okay, so, by all measures of the word, this is a beautiful book. It’s beautifully written, the relationships that are explored are deeply drawn and handled deftly, and the main characters are all endearing/lovely/affecting in unique and believable ways. It’s just… this was also a very boring book. Stevens’ remarkable ability to depict characters and handle complex emotional states can’t compensate for an incredibly bland plot.
The basic premise is: Billie and her gang of friends decide to save the town’s annual Harvest Festival from being canceled for good. For reasons that make sense in the book, Billie also gets put on the ballot for the town’s annual “best woman” contest. This contest for the Corn Dolly was a continual irritant for me, despite Stevens’ careful balancing act in how she presents and talks about it. It’s hard to get around that fact that the entire town annually votes for that year’s “best woman” or whatever, and that people take this Very Seriously. So that’s also the important thing to keep in mind about this book: although sexuality is given a lot of exploration and nuance, gender itself is dealt with pretty traditionally.
I’ve seen Billie labeled as genderfluid in other places, but in my reading, Billie firmly identifies as a girl from start to end. Billie’s a tomboy in a southern town with old church ladies, and this tension plays out pretty much how you’d expect. There is romantic exploration between Billie and her best friends Woods and Janie Lee, but no one obviously pairs off by the end of the book (which was refreshing, to be honest). This is a coming of age book about the complexity of sexuality, and Billie doesn’t clearly identify as anything by the end.
In addition to the Corn Dolly/Save the Town Festival snoozefest, I have to admit I almost noped right out of this book within the first chapters. Billie and company start a fire in their church during a youth lock-in, and this damaged my opinion of Billie so badly that it was only my interest in the character Davey that kept me reading. (Although Billie’s the main character, Davey stole the show, imo). Sure, Billie truly, honestly did not intend to start a fire, but I have no tolerance, in life or fiction, for people who put their own entertainment ahead of common sense.
So, I guess what surprised me most about this book is that despite the missteps in the opening chapters and a plot that felt like molasses going uphill, I ended up enjoying it so much because of the relationships that are shown. This book is absolutely and entirely an ode to friendship, and it’s astonishing and lovely that this theme is centered so deeply in the story.
Courtney “Court” Stevens grew up in Kentucky and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a former adjunct professor and youth minister. She is also the author of The Lies About Truth and Faking Normal. You can visit her online at: http://www.courtneycstevens.com.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.