By Jermaine Wong (20S03R) and Ruchira Ramaswamy (20S03A)
Synopsis: Everyone has their own secrets, things they’d rather not share, even with the closest of friends. For Simone Garcia-Hampton, the last thing she wants her peers to find out about her is that she is HIV-positive.
At first glance, this is your typical Young Adult novel, complete with high school drama and an actual drama club, of which Simone is the director. Classically, it goes like this: girl meets a cute boy (not just any cute boy, but one with an obsession for licking ice cream in a titillating manner), they fall for each other, but it never is that smooth sailing. Enter a jealous blackmailer, who threatens to expose Simone’s deepest, darkest secret and sabotage her relationship with Miles (the cute boy).
But of course, this book is more complicated than that. Simone’s secret that she is HIV-positive is not a small one, and the saboteur’s attempt to out her status to the school is cruel, devious and terrifying. Sadly, it is only reflective of the sometimes harsh and unforgiving world we live in. Many people from the LGBTQ+ community, or those battling STDs, live in constant shame and fear that revealing their truths to their loved ones or the community beyond will leave them shunned and ostracised. Worse still is the anxiety that someone will get there before them, and they will not have a chance to tell their story with their own voice.
It isn’t fair that some have to live with such massive burdens weighing them down. The weight of this responsibility comes crashing down on Simone midway through the book, when she is faced with the dilemma of telling Miles about her status before their relationship goes further. In the state of California, where she lives, (and 33 other states in the USA) it is illegal for an HIV-positive individual to engage in sexual activities without disclosing their status to their partner(s). Legal ramifications aside, a meaningful relationship does call for honesty and trust. On the other hand, how just is it to expect someone to reveal deeply personal information in the early stages of a budding relationship, when emotions are still raw and fresh, and their trust in one another is still developing?
The plot is skilfully crafted to arrange a string of events that make for moments of deep contemplation. In doing so, it highlights hardships that are seldom brought to light, but are experienced by some people, even at the tender age of 17.
However, the only aspect that we find slightly illogical is how quickly Simone jumps to conclusions about the possible identity of her blackmailer without any concrete evidence. First, she suspects that some of the Drama Club members who dislike her are behind it, simply because they are rude to her at rehearsals. Just as quickly, Simone goes on to suspect the culprits to be her best friends, Lydia and Claudia, only because they haven’t been too happy with her for neglecting their friendship to spend time with Miles all the time.
Character Relationships: 3/5
One of our favourite aspects of the book is the development of Simone’s interactions and relationships with the other members of her HIV support group, namely, Jack, Brie, and Ralph. When we are first introduced to “Group”, Simone makes it very clear that she isn’t friends with any of the other teenagers who are “probably being forced to come every week”, and even detests some of them. However, as the story progresses, Simone decides to open up more to her peers at Group and seek their advice about problems that she feels that only they would understand, being HIV-positive themselves. Hence, we feel that it was a shame that more time wasn’t devoted to developing Simone’s friendships with Jack, Brie, and Ralph. There are only three short Group sessions interspersed throughout the novel, which make their actions towards the end of the book feel somewhat contrived.
Personally, another plus-point is how Simone’s best friends, Claudia and Lydia, and her love interest, Miles, react to the news that she is HIV-positive. Both the build-up to Simone’s decisions to disclose her status and her friends’ reactions feel very real. Garrett truly allows the reader a glimpse into the trepidation that a HIV-positive individual feels when he or she decides to break the news to his or her loved ones, and shows how their acceptance and support matters so greatly.
That being said, we do have a bone to pick with how Simone’s relationship with Miles was handled. We don’t see them establish any kind of emotional connection or friendship before they suddenly declare their undying love for each other and start feeling each other up in the school corridors. Simone goes from saying that “there’s no reason for Miles to say more than a few words to [her]” in Chapter 2, to asking him out in Chapter 3, and locking lips with him in Chapter 4. Their romance plays out more like a clichéd insta-love story, rather than a gradual build-up from platonic to romantic interest. Because of the significance of their relationship in discussing the dilemmas a HIV-positive person could face––such as when to disclose their status to their romantic partner––their whirlwind romance makes some of the later key plot points that center around it feel significantly less believable. Still, as we mentioned, the characters get plus points for handling news of Simone’s status in the most graceful way possible. There was always an initial apprehension and worry, not due to prejudice, but due to a considerable lack of knowledge surrounding the subject. It was comforting to see this being followed up with an outpouring of love, support, and most importantly: respect that Simone was also a human being, an equal.
Over and above this, Garrett has created characters you would want to root for despite their flaws, which is no easy task.
Writing Style: 4/5
Garrett’s writing style is fluid and lucid, making for a really smooth read. You’ll feel butterflies as you see Simone and Miles’ relationship deepen, loving exasperation at Pop’s banter with Simone, burgeoning sadness as Simone realises she’s been unwillingly outed as positive, and quiet pride as she steps into the spotlight claims her own identity towards the end of the story.
To put it shortly, the writing complements the plot and characters well, giving Simone a unique voice and bringing out the different emotions and the right junctures. The real standout point of this book was its diverse characters and the values of acceptance and positivity that it championed.
Overall Message/Standout Features: 5/5
This is author Camryn Garrett’s debut novel—which she reportedly penned when she was 17—and her effort to make the story as sex-positive and ethnically-inclusive as possible is noble, and incredibly admirable. The amount of heart, soul and honesty this book holds is exactly what sets it apart from other novels. Not only is its protagonist a HIV-positive adoptive daughter to two dads, her closest friends are also on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Not only does Simone embrace her curiosity about sex and pleasure, so do her parents, best friends and doctors. Not only does she have an unwavering support system at home, she has a band of friends and teachers in school who accept her. It is extremely heartwarming to see this fictional universe chock-full of love and optimism.
All of this makes Full Disclosure an ambitious, groundbreaking YA novel: it’s one of the first of its kind that depicts the everyday joys and struggles of life as an HIV-positive teenager (who also happens to be African-American and bisexual) in modern society. The educational message woven into the story helps to raise awareness about this STD and its related condition, AIDS. It plays a pivotal role in paving the way for an era of greater understanding and acceptance, starting in the literary world. More importantly, it could erode some of the stigma that continues to surround this “taboo” subject.
Would we call it overly utopian or over-zealous in its enthusiasm to tackle so many topics like stigma, sex, love, racial discrimination and bullying all in the confines of 290 pages? No. We’d like to think of it as an alluring landscape that Camryn Garret has painted, inked with her hopes and dreams. It’s an illustration of a world that should be, and just perhaps could be.