A review of Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After
By Annika van Leeuwen
From the moment I saw the smiling face, flower crown, and top surgery scars of the titular character on the cover, I was in love with Felix Ever After. Depicting a transgender boy’s quest for community, identity, and revenge, this novel by Kacen Callender is a classic high school story in an updated setting. Seventeen-year-old Felix Love is the victim of a hateful exposition in which pre-transition photos are displayed in combination with his deadname – the name he was given at birth, but with which he no longer identifies. Felix makes it his mission to ruin the life of the perpetrator, assuming that it is his rival Declan Keane, who he catfishes through Instagram. Mixed in with this are the general high school senior’s anxieties of finding Love, having to create an art portfolio for college applications, and worrying about whether his identity is really what he thought it was.
Callender, the winner of both the Lambda and Stonewall awards, is an author known for their groundbreaking books on LGBTQ+ characters and issues. And Felix Ever After explores a plot that flows naturally from the diverse set of characters inhabiting the colourful New York cityscape. With the ever increasing fluidity of the gender and sexuality spectrum today, the contemporary Young Adult literary scene needed classic YA fiction plots that contain more than the occasional gay side character. And this book delivers.
For instance, Felix’s best friend Ezra is rich, mixed-race, gay and above all loyal. Ezra’s friend group also consists mostly of people who identify as non-straight. This allows for a varied queer representation; even within the LGBTQ+ community, some characters are unkind or exclusionary while others are loyal and accepting. For example, Marisol, a girl Felix briefly dated and good friend of Ezra’s, is convinced that Felix’s transition means that he is anti-woman. The revelation of this opinion and Marisol’s subsequent defence of her words create a painful moment in the book, yet this functions as a realistic depiction of prejudice between people in the queer community.
The problem of the book is not Callender’s handling of representation, but of the plot. By the time the revenge plot nears its resolution, the mystery of the culprit has become uninteresting. The catfishing story leads to an ineffective love triangle, and there are a couple of threads that just do not go anywhere, story wise, such as the continuous emphasis on Felix’s mother leaving. These plot points provide some space for Felix to learn and grow, yes, but they are not quite as developed nor as satisfying to the reader as they may have been.
The story at its best, then, is not really that of a trans boy getting revenge on someone who treated him horribly, but rather of the community of loving people around him and his quest for identity. It is the story of Ezra, whose parents provide for him more out of a perceived duty than out of love; of Declan, who is not as privileged as he seems, and of Leah, who turns out to be just as generous and kind as Ezra even though she was disregarded by Felix in the start of the novel. These characters make the novel worth reading, and I am thrilled that the TV show it will be adapted into (according to a recent post on Callender’s blog) will spend more time on them.
I hope that this TV show will delve more into the relationships Felix has with adults in his life, first and foremost with his father. The relationship between Felix and his father is strained; although Felix’s dad tries to support him in his studies, his career, and his transition as much as possible, already in the opening chapter it becomes clear that he has not yet fully accepted him. When they encounter each other for the first time in the book, he says, “‘Hey kid’ … since he still has a hard time saying my name.” The novel explores how this father is trying and not fully succeeding – but also not completely failing – to accept his son the way he is. The father does not get as much character growth as the other characters in the book, but perhaps this is on purpose; not everyone is going to be able to become a fully accepting ally, even though they may mean well and try to be better.
To be honest, I did not find Felix the most likable character. There are times when he is irrational and hypocritical, and he is unwilling to let go of his grudges. Felix demands compassion from those around him that he himself does not award others. His life is hard, but this makes him unwilling to accept that other people may not in fact have such an easy time either. This, though, is what makes the ending satisfying for more than just the plot. Felix grows. His character faults in the beginning allow for an evolution, and at the end I was glad to have been on this journey with him. Felix does not become perfect, as we should not expect a realistic, rounded character to be, but he is a better person than before.
Felix Ever After is an important book, providing much needed nuanced representation for genderqueer teens. Not everyone is going to fit into the gay-best-friend trope, and that’s okay. Felix is not done finding out who he is, he has not always known that he was trans, and he is allowed to question. This novel allows readers who question their own sexual or gender identity to see aspects of themselves in a slew of bright personalities. Callender treats both their characters and their readers with respect, in a story about identity set against a colourful, vibrant – but also smelly and crowded – New York City background.
Annika van Leeuwen is one of RevUU’s editors. She’s currently in the Master’s programme Literature Today. When reading literature, she focuses on how it deals with themes such as gender, race, and sexuality. What sets her apart from other critical voices is that she will not read only literature, but she will deal with any book as if it’s literature. As a reader, she’s mostly interested in fantasy books, although she also thoroughly enjoys some Jane Austen.
Author image by Lee Russell
Callender, Kacen. Felix Ever After. Balzer and Bray/Harperteen, 2020.