From the Blurb
Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home.
Margot's caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor.
Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.
It's incredibly hard to write correctly the ways that people interact on the internet. Surfing online, talking to your friends, even blogging... sometimes the experience is a little like exporting consciousness into the vastness that is the web and leaving your body behind. Just ask anyone who's ever tried to go on Facebook for a short amount of time, then looked at the clock to discover hours have passed.
just_a_girl is a novel that is of and within the digital age. It explores the accelerated sexuality of teens online, with increasing access to information, and ways of expressing themselves. Teenage Layla does not need her mother's guidance to become a grown up, which is good, because Margot is totally clueless. Layla meets men online and then in real life; she makes sexually explicit videos and sends them to men she knows; she goes with an older boy named Davo, and it seems as if she doesn't care- but she does. When Davo gets off with her best friend, she feels the betrayal, just like she feels the wrongness in the sexual advances of her boss at the supermarket- because these things are not done out of desire or love (misguided as it may be), but out of a need to be the one in control. Cheat or be cheated on. Exploit the power you have over your employees.
The relationships that Layla engages in are all about connection. Everyone on the internet hides behind their anonymity in order to reach out for the things that maybe they cannot ask for as their true selves. There is a parallel here between the other two storylines of the book. Margot looks for connection and comfort in her church. And Tadashi, whose storyline seems to be connected only by this tenuous thread and his train rides with Layla, looks for connection with a real doll who looks like her.
I think this book had the potential to be really quite gross, but while it skates the edge of the shocking, it never tips over into that territory, and that is why it is such an effective novel. I just wish that Layla had been able to talk in proper sentences. Her short, clipped sentences were at odds with her intelligent and insightful vocabulary. But her voice was authentic and likeable, vulnerable but tough in exactly the right ratio, and ultimately this book was un-put-downable.
Four and a half stars.