When I saw Andrew Smith’s Winger at Chapters a few weeks ago – just for the cover alone – I really wanted to read it. Winger is about Ryan Dean West (Ryan Dean is his first name; he is more hesitant to share his middle name) and follows him over the fall of his junior year at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for rich kids. Before I read the book, it seemed very similar to Jon van de Ruit’s Spud books, about a boarding school in South Africa that focuses on the character of Spud in particular. But I didn’t pick up the book right away, mostly because Andrew Smith is also the author of The Marbury Lens, a book I absolutely loved for its story and writing, but didn’t like for its portrayal of female characters. But I picked up the book a week later, and read it in two sittings, which was more than enough time to completely forget about the comparison to Spud.
Ryan Dean West starts his junior year with the goal of reinventing himself from the “bitch-ass” 14-year-old he is, two years younger than anyone else in his year. He is at the top of his class and admits to always making sure he gets a few questions wrong on a test in order to keep the bell curve from being set too high for his classmates. When the book starts, Ryan Dean is submerged face first into the toilet of his dormitory bathrooms, already watching his goal of reinvention slide out of sight. This is the first year that he’ll be living in O-Hall (Opportunity Hall), the dormitory that students are sent to when they break the rules (Ryan Dean notes that almost everyone is in there for fighting). Instead of rooming with his best friends Seanie and JP in the normal dorms, he’s stuck with Chas Becker, big, mean, and an asshole.
Ryan Dean also plays rugby for his school, and I really appreciated Smith’s inclusion of the sport in this book, because it’s not often that it’s at the heart of a YA novel (football and basketball are the two that usually take precedence!). The games and practices provide a nice break in pace from Ryan Dean’s narration, and also provide much of the conflict between Ryan Dean and his friends. As one of the only openly gay students at Pine Mountain, their captain, Joey, routinely gets in fights with the football team, and Ryan Dean is one of the few who stand up for him.
Sam Bosma provides illustrations for the book, as Ryan Dean describes his own experience with a mix of text and comic images. The story is routinely funny and serious, and bounces back and forth between the two of them in a way that is incredibly realistic for a high school experience.
But the problem of Smith’s female characters really took away from the story, almost more than it did in The Marbury Lens. Ryan Dean is himself a sexist character, and while this isn’t usually a problem in YA literature (because characters have some awareness of their behavior and end up making a change by the end of the novel), it is with Ryan Dean. For the first few hundred pages of the book, he does not describe any female character without noting how hot or not hot she is. But Smith’s female characters don’t ever get more than that “hot” adjective; he doesn’t spend any more time on making them into dynamic characters. This is completely opposite to how he describes male characters; even Chas Becker has more depth than any female character.
And then there’s Ryan Dean’s love interest, Annie, who still sees him as a young 14-year-old boy (and truthfully, that’s what he is, at two years younger than her, and what 16-year-old girl would actually date a 14-year-old boy?). Yet when the unlikely romance does play out between them (even though Annie says “I can’t be in love with you” constantly), and Ryan Dean goes home to Seattle with Annie for the weekend, it becomes even more pained. Annie, for instance, makes sure Ryan Dean brings a couple of pairs of his too-short pants back to her house with him so that she and her mom can fix the hem. Smith writes, “That afternoon, Annie kept her promise to fix my school pants, but her mom helped. So I stood there in the ‘sewing room’ in my socks and underwear doing the on-off routine with my pants while hot Annie pinned and her hot mother worked the sewing machine.”
I usually love YA books with male protagonists. They usually provide authentic, refreshing, and interesting points of view. And they can be as crude as they need to be because there is still something genuine about their male protagonists, something important and validating. Ryan Dean didn’t ever change from being a 14-year-old junior who thought he deserved perfection in every area of his life, who objectified the girls at his school while still expecting them to fall in love with him and make all his sexual fantasies come true. He doesn’t reinvent himself. He doesn’t change even a little bit.
I wanted to really, really love this book, but I just couldn’t ever invest enough in the story, because when I did, all I ended up with was another sexist, objectifying comment that took me right out of it again. For Joey and Seanie and Chas, the boarding school setting, and ending, Winger is a really good book. But without a single well-rounded female character, it was a miss for me.