Dean Foster knows he’s a trans guy. He’s watched enough YouTube videos and done enough questioning to be sure. But everyone at his high school thinks he’s a lesbian—including his girlfriend Zoe, and his theater director, who just cast him as a “nontraditional” Romeo. He wonders if maybe it would be easier to wait until college to come out. But as he plays Romeo every day in rehearsals, Dean realizes he wants everyone to see him as he really is now––not just on the stage, but everywhere in his life. Dean knows what he needs to do. Can playing a role help Dean be his true self?
When I finished Between Perfect and Real in one sitting, I think I just held this book to my chest and whispered to myself: this book is going to save lives. What a stunning, earnest, and affirming book Between Perfect and Real is. I loved this book whole-heartedly, and it is a fantastic addition to young adult trans literature that speaks to its vulnerable yet powerful personal truth.
The story follows Dean, who realises that he is a trans boy. When he is cast as Romeo at his school play, Dean grapples with coming out as trans to his friends, his girlfriend Zoe, applying to go to college in NYU, and coming out to his parents, particularly his mother that was hesitant to accept when he came out as a lesbian.
The story begins with Dean realising that he’s a trans boy; he’s watched all the YouTube videos and when he plays Romeo, he feels more at home and more like who he really is. Dean’s gradual coming out is the force that drives the story, as he must navigate what it means to come out as a trans boy and who he comes out to. In addition, he also struggles to find the vocabulary for his coming out, and the process is daunting, scary, new. I enjoyed that Dean’s feelings about his identity, and how he explores those feelings, are centered in the story. I also loved that Dean joins a support group for trans and nonbinary people, which is a space where he can learn more about himself in an affirming and safe space, which in turn provides readers, especially trans and nonbinary readers, a safe space to learn and reflect.
To be clear, Between Perfect and Real isn’t a ‘fluffy’ contemporary book. There are fluffy moments, yes, especially when Dean is surrounded by his supportive friends at school and his new friends at the support group, but it also plainly portrays the challenges that he faces when coming out. Though there is no explicit deadnaming in the book (Dean is referred to as Dean the entire time), there are characters who deadname and also misgender him after he comes out as trans (though these are challenged or portrayed in a negative light consistently). One character in particular bullies Dean and expresses anti-queer and anti-trans sentiment, and Dean does experience some dysphoria. Though Dean’s journey of coming into his trans identity is not always perfect and wholesome, there is trans joy as well. Specifically, the joy he feels when he feels comfortable and happy in his body after binding for the first time, when he figures out the pronouns that makes him feel at home in his own skin, and also finding acceptance and love from his friends – and most importantly, himself.
The friendships and relationships in this book were fantastic and beautifully developed. Dean has a friend group that support him, including his friend Ronnie, a Black queer teen, and his girlfriend Zoe, a white lesbian. While Ronnie becomes an anchor and steadfast place of support and unconditional love for Dean, coming out as trans complicates his relationship with Zoe. Between Perfect and Real isn’t a romance story per se, but it does portray the love that Dean and Zoe share and how their relationship is changed by Dean’s coming out. I thought Dean and Zoe’s relationship was brilliantly written – part loving, part bittersweet, and real in the way it honestly portrays teens in love. Sometimes we may love a person, but change may take us on a different path in life, different to those who we love.
Dean’s relationship with his parents is a significant conflict in this novel. While Dean’s dad is more supportive and understanding, Dean hesitates to tell his mother that he’s trans, especially after she struggled to accept him initially coming out as a lesbian. Discussing and exploring parental relationships can be challenging to read at times, particularly for queer readers who may have experienced conflict or less than open acceptance for their queer or genderqueer identities. With Dean’s mother in particular, Dean reflects on the chasm between his mother’s heteronormative expectations of him and the trans boy who he really is. Though Dean’s relationship with his parents, especially his mother, is fraught and rocky, Dean’s feelings are centered throughout the story – and there’s hope by the end as well.
Between Perfect and Real is, at its very core, a personal book; it reads personally, like a love letter that Stoeve wrote to themself and to those who this book will resonate with. It’s a story that shows that self-acceptance and being true to yourself may not always be easy, that it may be fraught with challenges and people who won’t accept you, but it also offers light and hope to trans and non-binary readers. Moreover, I loved that Between Perfect and Real illuminates on the many ways that people can be trans; that even being trans comes with expectations, but there’s no one right way to be trans – what is right, rather, is being your authentic self and taking the time to discover who that person may be.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Between Perfect and Real is an earnest and gorgeous book that celebrates trans identity and the self-love that comes with living your truth. I adored this book; adored its tender storytelling, its moments of vulnerability, but also its fierce and resolute in its hope and joy. Between Perfect and Real is a wonderful book, one that I will recommend for many years to come.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A trans boy realises that he is trans, and has to grapple with coming out, his role as Romeo in his school play, friendship, and telling his girlfriend.
Perfect for: Readers who may be questioning whether they are trans or non-binary; readers who love queer literature; readers who love contemporaries that balance joy and hard-hitting topics.
Think twice if: You are looking for a wholly wholesome and fluffy read.
Genre: young adult contemporary
Trigger/content warning: instances of anti-trans rhetoric (microaggressions, misgendering, deadnaming; all challenged in text), gender dysphoria, bullying, mention of trans suicide