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Politics and Sexual Violence in PLUS ONE, a guest post by author Elizabeth Fama (and a GIVEAWAY)

An Intro from Karen: So, here’s a deep dark secret: Sometimes, when I really love a book and want to talk about it, I contact the author, mostly to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t read it yet (you’re welcome). I first contacted author Elizabeth Fama when I read Monstrous Beauty and wrote my post about the common, every day sexual abuse many girls face in this world that we don’t normally talk about, like street harassment. And I was blown away once again by the upcoming Plus One (releases tomorrow). So I emailed her. And as we talked she asked if I wanted to be on the promotional tour for the book and I jumped at the chance. Today, she is joining us to talk about the sexual politics in Plus One. She will also be joining us later in the year for the #SVYALit Project. Read to the bottom for your chance to win a copy of PLUS ONE by Elizabeth Fama.
Note from Elizabeth to Karen’s readers: This post necessarily includes spoilers for Plus One, which I alert you to as they happen, so that you can scroll past the worst of it if you prefer. For trigger purposes, you should know the post discusses sexual violence, but without graphic descriptions. 
Politics and Sexual Violence in Plus One

Sexual violence seems to be an issue my brain wants to work on when I write books. I’m so glad that readers like Karen are thinking about it too, and engaging the literary world in conversation.

The action, romance, and even the baby stealing in Plus One seem to have captured the attention of many early readers, sometimes distracting them from the politics of freedom in the book–which includes sexual freedom as a subset. My own editor said that the design team had tried hard to create a cover that reflected the multiple aspects of the book, but they kept coming back to the fact that the romance resonated strongly with everyone on staff at Macmillan, and they decided to embrace it. They’re right: the book is hard to summarize with one image. And their jacket design turns out to be, frankly, irresistible–an outstanding marketing move. Still, I worry that the gorgeous cover has the potential to distract from the serious themes inside, which I hope teens will think about and discuss.

So you can imagine my pleasure when Karen contacted me with this:

I thought the politics of the situation were dead on and were in fact the most compelling part of the story….The sexual violence aspects of it — and to me, any type of unwanted sexual contact is a form of violence — definitely played into it. That scene with Gigi and the Hour Guard, uggh.  Also, interesting because I have read several [books] recently where sexual favors are coerced from young girls.  I’ve been wanting to write a thing about this. Of course there is also the scene with Sol and D’Arcy that is really a beautiful scene about consensual sex and caring.

The truth is, whenever I want to include a sexual interaction in a book, I try to ask myself why it’s there, and whether it needs to be. While many teens in the real world have sex simply because they enjoy it, this is literature, and I need it to be there for a reason that’s integral to the plot and themes. (The wise editor Jean Karl once told Franny Billingsley to remove every single thing from her manuscript that wasn’t “wholly necessary,” and I follow that advice to this day.)  In the case of Plus One, both of the major sexual encounters and even one minor one tie in with the politics of the world, and with the theme of lost liberties. 
****The paragraphs in blue contain spoilers. Scroll down to the black paragraph at the bottom if you’d like to avoid them.****
Gigi’s circumstance is obvious: Brad the Hour Guard is able to abuse his authority by putting her in a position where she has to barter for ordinary freedoms using sex. This is a case of sexual violence via asymmetric power. (The actual sex happens “off camera.”) Although Gigi technically consents to the encounter, she would say no if she could: she is forced to make this “choice.” (Recall that Sol observes in the hospital that another Hour Guard has “the Official-Business swagger that’s so ubiquitous among ordinary people who are granted extraordinary authority.”) No one takes this event lightly in the book; D’Arcy and Sol identify it as horrific violence, and a grim commentary on their helplessness. Despite her stoic facade, Gigi is profoundly affected, and in the meeting with the Noma she impulsively seeks validation that it was a necessary sacrifice. I know this scene with Gigi and Brad has upset some readers, who feel it’s unnecessary and “out of the blue,” but I think it’s important. In particular, the scene acts in tandem with the other sex scene of the book, in which Sol is able to express healthy sexual agency. In fact, Sol is so in charge of her sexuality that she can literally say these unequivocal words to D’Arcy: “I want to have sex with you,” and to act on them responsibly and without guilt. D’Arcy is definitely game, but even with her bold proclamation he checks twice that she hasn’t changed her mind (once before and once during their encounter).    
But wait, the consensual scene itself is a little more complicated than that, because it continues to tie in with the theme of loss of liberties. Yes, Sol and D’Arcy are equal partners when they have sex, but as I discussed in a post on Keertana’s blog, a different kind of pressure is present for them. Keertana worried that the sex was rushed and unnecessary, and that the professions of love were too quick. That sense she had of “rushing” was right on target: both the sex and the love are hurried for a reason. Sol believes she’ll never see D’Arcy again, and she’s taking the one and only opportunity she has to be with this person she cares so deeply about. Who knows how their relationship would have progressed if they’d had the luxury of time? We already know, for instance, that D’Arcy has taken dating other girls very slowly, and has been thoughtful about what he is and is not ready for. His fear of physically hurting Sol is strong enough that it may have led them to delay intercourse, and to take it in baby steps. But because of the politics of this world, they can’t do it that way. 

There’s a third sexual encounter in the book that’s also related to the political theme (but much more subtly): Sol’s encounter in the gangway with Ace when she’s only eleven. It’s an experience I think a lot of girls have, and it’s on the spectrum of sexual violence (even though it may seem relatively “harmless,” and Ace himself is underage). Sol believes his kissing and fondling are affectionate–that he must “like” her. She has a crush on him after that, and thinks she wants it to happen again, until she’s the same age he was when he did it and she sees his behavior for what it was (an older boy taking sexual advantage of a child). To me this has a (granted, very subtle) symmetry with the Day/Night policy, which people have accepted at face value as a restriction that was put in place to protect us, and are only slowly coming to realize is wrong. Sometimes breaches of rights present themselves as benign at first, and confuse us into not resisting. 
For me the point of this novel was to get young readers invested in the sexual and romantic elements so that they would really internalize multiple facets of individual liberty. While there are many other freedoms the characters have lost (such as the ability to choose their own education and career), I suspect sex and love are more powerfully relevant issues in the adolescent experience. I wanted teens to understand the violation of the Day/Night divide for what it was–to imagine themselves coping with it. I wanted them to pay attention to Grady Hastings’ speech “You can only be free if I am free.” (Which is actually Grady quoting Clarence Darrow.) I hoped Gigi’s predicament, and Sol’s and D’Arcy’s journey, would help readers see that all rights, including the rights of people who aren’t like you, are worth fighting for. The sexual violence is there for a reason: I wanted it to be very clear in Plus One that the world is not right–that a lot of work needs to be done in this society to restore personal freedom.  


Divided by day and night and on the run from authorities, star-crossed young lovers unearth a sinister conspiracy in this compelling romantic thriller.

Seventeen-year-old Soleil Le Coeur is a Smudge—a night dweller prohibited by law from going out during the day. When she fakes an injury in order to get access to and kidnap her newborn niece—a day dweller, or Ray—she sets in motion a fast-paced adventure that will bring her into conflict with the powerful lawmakers who order her world, and draw her together with the boy she was destined to fall in love with, but who is also a Ray.

Set in a vivid alternate reality and peopled with complex, deeply human characters on both sides of the day-night divide, Plus One is a brilliantly imagined drama of individual liberty and civil rights, and a fast-paced romantic adventure story

Goodreads Link: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17934493-plus-one?from_search=true
Buy Links Amazon  Barnes and Noble 

Author Bio:

ELIZABETH FAMA is the YA author most recently of Plus One, an alternate-history thriller set in contemporary Chicago. Her other books include Monstrous Beauty, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection and an Odyssey honor winner, and Overboard, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a society of Midland Authors honor book, and a nominee for five state awards. A graduate of the University of Chicago, where she earned a B.A. in biology and an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics, she lives with (and cannot live without) her boisterous, creative family in Chicago.

Author Links: Website / Twitter / Tumblr

Tour Schedule:
March 31st  –  Fiction Fare
April 1st       – The Starry Eyed Revue
April 2nd      – Ivy Book Bindings
April 3rd       – Carina’s Books
April 4th       – Presenting Lenore
April 5th       – Shae Has Left the Room
April 6th       – The Best Books Ever
April 7th       – Teen Librarian Toolbox
April 8th       – Love is Not a Triangle  (Release Day)
April 9th      –  The Bevy Bibliotheque

Book Review: PLUS ONE by Elizabeth Fama

This book.  Oh my goodness, people – this book!

Here’s the basic premise:

During the flu epidemic of 1918 the government decided that some people would get to be awake and operate during the day (Rays) and others during the night (Smudges).  This decreased the amount of contact people had with one another and helped end the plague.  But it also created a caste system where the privileged Rays get to live a regular life and the looked down upon Smudges never get to see the sun.  In fact, Smudges have to take a variety of medication to help regulate their sleep and wake cycle.  Everyone is forced to carry documentation and if you are caught out past your curfew by the Hour Guards you are thrown in jail.

Sol is a Smudge who concocts a plan to help her dying grandfather have one last moment of joy that involves breaking curfew and kidnapping babies.  This plan, of course, goes all wrong.  But she meets a boy named D’Arcy along the way and together the two of them fall in love and discover lots of truths about themselves, their world, and the lives they thought they were living.  It is a very thoughtful and complex look at politics, privilege, government, and more.

A More In Depth Look at the Sexual Politics of Plus One (Slightly Spoilerish about Two Scenes, but Not Plot or Ending)

And tucked inside are some very harrowing scenes that shed some stunning light on sexual politics as well.  I am now going to discuss them in a very spoiler free way.  You see, while on the run, Sol meets a young woman named Gigi and they have a conversation where they barter for Gigi’s help.  They use some very loaded language about rape as a metaphor for taking advantage of someone. And then, the 3 teens are stopped by an Hour Guard who uses his power to coerce Gigi into a sexual act in exchange for their safety.  It also is a harrowing scene, very uncomfortable to read and Fama uses the character of Sol and her reactions to remind us all the very complicated nature of power and sexual politics.

BUT THEN . . . there is one of the most sex positive and consent positive scenes I have ever read between Sol and D’Arcy.  It’s an amazing scene because Sol is very sure of what she wants and has the power to express it.  That’s right, a female character taking charge of her sexual desires in positive ways.  And in the midst of this scene, D’Arcy even reaffirms that this is indeed what she wants.  It manages to be consent positive and still very sexy.  It is a really good example to readers about what healthy sexual interaction can look like.

The Rest of the Review (Spoiler Free)

But let’s talk about Sol.  I love that Sol is a very complex, multilayered character.  She is driven, but very human and her plans often fail or get off track.  She has rough, hard edges built up by growing up in a system that affords her little freedom and is designed to tell her how little potential she actually has.  Yet under that is a layer of depth, intelligence, and sometimes even hope.  She is very passionate and dedicated, but sometimes reckless and selfish.  And in the end . . .

Actually, the ending of this book is so powerful.  it is an example of complex and amazing storytelling.  Fama doesn’t take the easy way out.  The plot has built up in such a way that you know there is no way everyone can come out of this with what they want.  So Sol arranges it so that a best case scenario happens – and she takes control of the situation even while others around her try to take that control away from her.  She makes incredible sacrifices – showing tremendous courage and growth – to create the best possible outcome for most of the people involved, including more than just our immediate players.  As they say, sometimes doing what is right is not easy, and that is definitely exemplified here.

I will say that Plus One was a slow start for me.  Fama takes her time building the world and introducing the characters and the plot, and I can be an impatient reader.  The set-up takes almost the first 75 pages.  But then it really starts steamrolling and I could not put it down and those beginning bits and pieces are important, they make sense.  Afterwards, I was amazed at everything Fama was able to put into this one book and how it really makes you think.  She does everything good storytelling does; the characters grow and draw you in, the layers are peeled back and reveal a complex and intricately woven world that makes you reflect upon the realities of our own, and then she makes you just want to talk to everyone about this book. It definitely and superbly sheds a kind of sideways light on a lot of the very discussions we are having in our world today about class, privilege, justice, politics, and more.  It is a masterclass in complex and sublime storytelling.

About That Cover

The cover makes it look like this is a romance, which it is not.  There is a love story in there.  And truthfully, the way Fama is able to make it so that this is not a case of insta-love even though our characters have just met is very creative and, yes, romantic. But there is so much more to this story. I fear that the cover might prevent non romance readers from picking this book up, and they will be missing out because this is not really a romance. I am not a romance reader, and I loved this book.

I give this 5 stars and highly recommend it.  Obviously you’ll want to note if you need to know that there are some intense sexual discussions and content and a little bit of violence.  Also, I contacted Elizabeth Fama yesterday after reading this book and she has graciously agreed to join our Sexual Violence in YA Lit panel for September.  I can’t wait to hear her talk about this book.

I received an ARC of this book for review in exchange for an honest review. It comes out in April 2014 from Farrar Straus Giroux.  ISBN: 978-374-36007-8.