Article Content Warning: spoilers
Book Content Warning: homophobia, fatphobia, homophobic slurs, child abuse, outing, teen pregnancy
Lindsay Sproul’s debut novel We Were Promised Spotlights follows Taylor Garland, senior and queen bee of her little town in Massachusetts. Everyone at her high school wants to be her and she feels a mounting pressure, as graduation inches closer, to follow the expectations the town has for her life: to settle down with her prom king, attend a local trade school, and remain a local forever. But Taylor has a secret: she’s a lesbian and in love with her best friend, Susan.
I was hesitant to rate this book so low. After all, LGBTQ+ representation in contemporary fiction is somewhat new, and isn’t any representation of LGBTQ+ stories beneficial in the long run? To a certain extent, maybe. But this book does more harm than good in the negative stereotypes it perpetuates. The main character is struggling with deeply internalized homophobia and often lashes out against her peers, most notably when she forcibly outs her former friend Corvis to the entire school to hide her own sexuality. A long-running subplot follows their attempt to rebuild their friendship: Taylor envies Corvis’s self-confidence, which is ironic since Taylor is the reason Corvis had no choice but to become publicly secure in her identity as a queer person in the first place.
Initially, the novel promises to subvert typical expectations of a coming-out story because the main character is already cemented in her school’s in-group and social scene. In this case, acceptance works against Taylor: her comfy social standing is too precious to give up by being transparent about her sexuality. Sproul tries to write off Taylor’s struggles with internalized homophobia as occasionally comedic with one-liners like “what if [my friends] thought I was a homo too?” but they come across as cringeworthy at best and insensitive at worst.
Structurally speaking, this novel often reads like an unfinished draft. Sproul doesn’t do much in the way of character development and as a result, readers struggle to connect with or care about the cast of characters because they are so boiled down. The plot wavers randomly between elements of a typical high school comedy and startlingly dark subject matter. Dramatic and often serious events like teen pregnancy, the loss of a parent, child abuse, eating disorders, and STIs are peppered in without giving them any weight or serious discussion. The result is a toneless mess.
One of the least savory scenes is when Taylor takes advantage of her best friend when she’s in a particularly vulnerable emotional state. They have sex while drunk and her friend expresses regret the next day but Taylor refuses to give her friend the space, respect, or apology she deserves. This instance of sexual assault is mostly dismissed; Taylor never expresses remorse, and Sproul never acknowledges how she plays into the extremely harmful “gay people are predatory” stereotype.
Another troubling scene comes when Taylor conflates being closeted and the genocide of Native Americans. She tells everyone at the Thanksgiving table that “‘the Pilgrims killed the Indians and gave them smallpox, and then made the rest of them move away … They never tell us the whole story. They act as it was just a great party all the time.’” And then Taylor thinks to herself, “I was aware that I was talking about myself, that I was also sick of everyone thinking my life was one big awesome party, but no one else seemed to notice.”
Watered-down stereotypes abound in this novel, especially with characters like Taylor’s lesbian friend Corvis. Corvis isn’t like other girls. She reads Virginia Woolf, smokes weed, shops at Hot Topic, and gets accepted to Sarah Lawrence College where Taylor wonders if it will be “full of freaks and lesbians.” Together, she and Taylor make fun of Corvis’s girlfriend Kristen and gatekeep Kristen’s sexuality by stating that “she’s not a lesbian, she’s just fat,” implying that Kristen is only with Corvis because she is “too fat” to get a boyfriend. It felt like Sproul watched every 90s/early 2000s high school movie and wrote down all the cliches she saw. Lesbianism is reduced to a mere label, the 1990s image of what lesbians were perceived as by mainstream society: weird outcasts.
It’s easy to see how Sproul might have intended to subvert that ideal by showing that anyone can be a lesbian; not just the weird, freaky, smart social pariah, but also the gorgeous prom queen with a seemingly perfect life. But the focus isn’t on Taylor’s love for women. We never even find out why she’s been in love with her best friend for years or what she likes about Susan beyond her physical appearance. Instead, it focuses on Taylor’s intense struggle with internalized homophobia, but her transition to self-acceptance isn’t at all satisfying because she never faces any consequences for how she hurts other people. Whether she’s sleeping with her best friend’s lifelong crush to prove she’s “not a homo,” egging Corvis’s house, or confessing her love for Susan at the prom—and manipulatively telling her that “no one will ever love you like I do”—none of it makes much difference. Taylor’s “boyfriend” breaks up with her but otherwise, she remains unchanged, still at the top of the totem pole and too busy fixating on her image to consider how her behavior hurts others.
The day I finished this book happened to be Lesbian Visibility Day, and I hesitated to give it one star on Goodreads. I felt a little guilty about rating a book with lesbian rep so low, especially on a day intended to celebrate their existence. But I couldn’t stop thinking that lesbians deserve better than this. Lesbians, and all other members of the LGBTQ+ community too, deserve to have their stories told without them being marred by harmful stereotypes and outdated cliches. That’s not to say we can’t have problematic, messy characters—we just deserve to see the good in our fictional counterparts, too.
Lindsay Sproul, originally from Marshfield, Massachusetts, is currently a creative writing professor at Loyola University New Orleans. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from Florida State University, and has received fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and The MacDowell Colony. Her fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Epoch, Witness, The Massachusetts Review and other publications. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.
We Were Promised Spotlights can be purchased here.
4 thoughts on “The Difficult Transition to Self-Acceptance: Review of We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul”
I loved this book, and I had a completely different takeaway from it, but most of all, I’m sad to see a literary journal choose to publish such a scathing review of a lesbian book when the reviewer could have chosen to highlight a book they enjoyed instead.
I didn’t think the sexual scene between Taylor and Susan was remotely sexual assault. If anything, Susan was abusive and manipulative throughout the story (and there’s always a Susan…) I also loved the voice and feel that this was one of the few honest portrayals of teen life in a working-class small town, especially in the 90s, an era in which internalized homophobia was rampant. It’s so important for young queer readers to learn about the time before them.
Regardless, I’m more disappointed in the choice to tear a lesbian writer down rather than boost another one up. I usually go to literary journals to find books I want to read—there are plenty of media outlets that trash books, and lit mags usually have a different role.
Yikes. I read this book and saw any of the things named problematic here as part of an authentic story of a young woman grappling with her sexuality in the 90s. It reflects the attitudes and experiences of the times. She suffers from internalized homophobia because of her surroundings, the era, and her own fear. Must every problematic behavior or phrase be “solved” in order to make this novel worthwhile? Are messy characters who are learning and growing not allowed anymore?
To me, having grown up in the 90s, it felt real and true. What you name as cliches were ubiquitous attitudes and icons of that time.
Taylor is a closeted high schooler in a small town. What do you want from her, perfection? Some tropes are outdated because the story takes place around 20 years ago, which I assume was intentional. I’m so confused by this review.
Lastly, this just seems in poor taste. Why trash a debut novel of a lesbian writer, all the while saying she’s doing wrong by other lesbians? Your hot takes are barely lukewarm. Do better.
Hey there! Are y’all deleting comments that disagree with this review? I notice that my comment and one yesterday have been removed.
If the point was to start a conversation about what the reviewer deems problematic, shouldn’t there be a…conversation?
Hi! For moderation purposes, WordPress automatically makes every comment pending until they’re approved by us and we just hadn’t had the chance to go through and approve comments yet. Thank you for reading the review and leaving your thoughts!