Orpheus Girl

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 15 Oct 2019

Member Reviews

Disclaimer: I was given an advance reading copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Soho Press and Soho Teen for the opportunity. 

I rarely read f/f representation on books, so it always intrigues and excites me whenever I see one. I'm thankful I was approved for this because this book deals with heavy themes no one is comfortable and brave enough to talk about. And the cover? I love it!

I would say that Brynne Rebele-Henry wrote one good debut novel. Orpheus Girl is honest and brave. There might be a few parts where I really didn't connect but it sort of pulls me back again.

I'm giving this 3.5 stars (rounded off to a 4). Maybe it's just me, so please do give this book a chance.
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Haunting and needed, ORPHEUS GIRL dives deep into the heartbreak, devastation and resilience teenage lesbian Raya feels when she is sent by her bigoted Christian grandmother to a "conversion camp" after being caught with her girlfriend. 

This book is a short but compelling and emotional retelling of the Orpheus myth with a queer lens. The ache and hope I felt while reading this book reduced me to sobs at the end. This book is so important for allowing readers who are not queer to experience first hand the terror of homophobia, especially when that homophobia is "well-intentioned".  

Sometimes your family isn't your blood and that's perfectly okay. ORPHEUS GIRL nails that and I haven't stopped thinking about this book for hours. I highly recommend it. 

Heavy trigger warning for homophobia, slurs, attempted suicide, self-harm, and physical and emotional torture. 

"She's gripping red flowers in her left hand, so tightly they start to fall apart. She stands up, and then there's a door hanging over our heads and she turns to me. 'You go first. But don't look back.' But I do look back. I do."
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Well, friends, I am happy to report that my reading slump is over. At least for the moment. I am back on track with my reading goals, due in large part to Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry and a few other ARCs that have kickstarted my “fall” reading. Trust and believe it is still every bit of 90 degrees here, though.

Raya knows she’s always been different. Her mother abandoned her to a grandmother who only saw her as redemption for her perceived failure with Raya’s mother. Raya is obsessed with myths, and she always thought she could love her best friend Sarah, and when Sarah returns her kisses, she knows she’s too far gone. When the girls are caught in a compromising position, Raya follows Sarah to straight camp, just as Orpheus descended to Hades to retrieve his love from the clutches of death. As much as Raya loves myths, however, she’s not Orpheus, and her life is not mythology and she’ll have to move heaven and Hades to get her girl and get out unscathed.

I flew through this book in under 24 hours. I started it before bed and was done by the next afternoon. It’s a quick read that packs a punch. If you’re a fan of mythology, you’ll notice some obvious parallels, but Rebele-Henry has taken great care with even minor characters to reflect characters from myth. I loved the budding romance between Raya and Sarah and was heartbroken as not only their love, but their bodies and spirits were tested as well.

If you’re looking for a quick read that will stay with you long after it’s done, make sure to add Orpheus Girl to your Fall Reading. It’s out on Tuesday, so the wait is nearly over!
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Thanks to NetGalley and Soho Teen for sending me a copy of this to review! Let's start with the cover: isn't it gorgeous? It's a bit reminiscent of We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, I think. Similar subject matter, too! Well, sort of similar. There isn't a conversion camp in that one.

At first, I was really excited to read this book. After all, it's in my wheel house, and I'd been hearing good things about it. Plus, it's loosely based on the Greek Orpheus myth, which is intriguing! Though, I admittedly don't know much about it. Maybe a bit of context would have helped me to connect to the story a bit more, as I felt a bit lost for a good part of the book.

This is an overall short read, but there are good moments to it. Rebele-Henry writes some beautiful sentences. In fact, I highlight a few of them while I was reading because they stood out to me. However, I didn't feel like I learned enough about Raya. Even though she's the narrator, her personality didn't shine. Her actions from the second half of the book didn't necessarily fit with the first half of the book. By the end, I wished she was a more concrete character, which would have made the book easier for me to get lost in.

Despite that, this is an important topic to explore in YA because there are a lot of these conversion camps that still exist. Which is absolutely heartbreaking. Fair warning, there is a lot of homophobia present in this book. It's important to show, but it's also difficult to read at times. 

All in all, there are a lot of small moments in this book that are good, and it shines a light on an important topic. I just wish the characters were a bit stronger.

2.5/5 stars
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I am torn. I love Greek mythology and can see the myth woven into Rebele-Henry's story beautifully. At the sentence level, this book is gorgeous writing, cover to cover. However, because this book deals with the painful subject of conversion "camp" and mixes the futility of Orpheus' love, I'd have to be extremely careful about which students I would recommend read this. This heavy, haunting read is a little like a horcrux in that it steals a part of your soul.
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Raya and Sarah just want to be together. However, because they live in a small town in Texas and are both girls it is completely unacceptable. When the girls are caught together they are shipped away to a reeducation camp to "fix" them. They go through forced hard labour and convertion therapy. What makes this story difficult to read is knowing people have actually gone through this. 

There was a lot I didn't like about this book. One of the main things I didn't like was how rushed it was. Everything escalated very quickly and I found more could have been added to have more depth to the story. What I absolutely hated was the character Char. She was the meanest worker in the camp, enforcing most of the punishments on Raya and Sarah and then all of a sudden she's the good guy letting them escape cause she suddenly felt bad and missed her old girlfriend? Ummm... no. I feel like if the author wanted to give Char redemption she should if had to work towards it and not just flip a switch. This actually ruined the book for me.
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DNF @27%
TW: homophobia
I read all of Part 1 and I have decided to mark this book as DNF. I think this story could mean so much to people but I just can't get into the story. The writing isn't working for me because I kept drifting off and finding myself needing to reread. Usually that's a bad sign. There's also a part of the story where Raya's mom isn't in the picture and that is personally triggering for me and every time I read a story where a parent left their kid for selfish reasons, I get in a bad place mentally.
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TW: homophobia, transphobia, misgendering, emotional and physical abuse, violence, suicide ideation, death, use of homophobic slurs

This is trauma porn. I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt and say they wanted to expose the horrors of conversion therapy. Because, without a doubt, conversion therapy is evil. But this almost fetishized all the pain and trauma that many LGBTQ teens/youth live through. It was painful to read, but not the kind of painful that teaches you new things or makes you grow. No, this was just awful and insanely triggering. 

There was no delicacy when talking about truly awful things (like electro shock therapy). It was just a constant ramping up of pain and mistreatment. It made no sense to the plot or characters, and served very little purpose. 

Besides the bad writing, bad characterization, and disjointed plot, this read as a laundry list of horrible things that happen to queer people. I was ready to DNF at 30% but finished reading with the hopes it redeemed itself—it never does. 

**Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ecopy in exchange for an honest review.**
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Orpheus Girl dwells on graphic queer pain with no clear purpose. A short, directionless debut from an author with tremendous future potential.


At the risk of spoiling the plot of this very short book, here’s the deal with Orpheus Girl:

Raya has three interests, we are told: the television career of her absent mother, Greek mythology, and girls. She knows her generically conservative small Texas town wouldn’t tolerate a relationship between two girls, so she alternates between careless hookups in semi-public places and shame-drenched efforts to appear straight.

The first third of the book describes Raya’s family, sexual history, and deepening relationship with Sarah. At about the 34% mark, she and Sarah are caught and sent to the same “conversion therapy” camp. The remaining 2/3 of the book describe, in graphic detail, the verbal abuse and physical torture of the two girls and the others trapped in the camp.

So what’s the point?

That’s the question I kept coming back to: what is the point of this story? Nothing seems to quite make sense. Orpheus Girl lacks the basic elements that do the job of a novel (developed and compelling characters, narrative arc). Instead, I just have 200 pages of things happening, mostly the same things over and over, and I’m just not sure where the value is.

Maybe the point is to shed light on the real horrors of conversion therapy, but that doesn’t quite make sense. The book is extremely vague about specifics–it took me a long time to cobble together enough details to understand what decade it is supposed to be int he book, and I still don’t know the exact year. Rebele-Henry is consistently uninterested in portraying the situation with literal accuracy. True-to-life details (the names of background characters, the nature of the camp’s punishments) are often replaced with less realistic details for the sake of the mythology metaphor. (I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. You can write a good book taking deep artistic liberties, but it does mean “accurately portraying a real-world injustice” isn’t accomplished by this book.)

Maybe the point is to serve as a warning and to impress upon readers the humanity of queer people, but the book doesn’t accomplish that either. Describing the pain of a character doesn’t necessarily invoke their humanity. When done poorly, it actually dehumanizes them by serving up their pain as entertainment to be consumed, and that’s the case here. Orpheus Girl doesn’t offer any ideas about how people do (or should) respond to suffering, why people inflict suffering on others (except for “homophobes are secretly gay,” and, yikes), or how people can respond to pain in the world. The pain is just there without comment. In addition, all of the characters, including the main couple, are exceptionally flat. Nothing about them communicated that we’re supposed to see them as real people.

Maybe the point is simply to put forward the image of a young queer girl as a modern Orpheus escaping the hell of a conversion camp, but there’s no real retelling here. Raya often reminds the reader that she thinks of herself as Orpheus, but there’s no depth to the metaphor. I can’t see how it extends past the initial connection. That image would be a wonderful starting place for a poem or a painting, but a novel needs much more to go on. The book doesn’t provide anything that you don’t get from the cover.

If you’re dwelling on queer pain in graphic detail, you need to have a point, but I don’t think Rebele-Henry has one here. It seems that she’s counting on the raw horror of the situation to substitute in for a story, and that just doesn’t make a compelling novel for me.

In YA, scenes that portray abuse of teens (especially of marginalized teens) in graphic detail need to be handled with extreme care. I‘m not saying they shouldn’t be done; some of the most powerful recent YA contemporaries rely on key scenes that immerse the reader in moments of fear, pain, and horror. But it must be done well. Those scenes must be contextualized in a thoughtful, mature narrative, not splattered across the pages like paint and left there. There must be a clear purpose for including them, and there has to be a chance for catharsis. Teen readers should experience those scenes with the understanding that when they’re through, there will be a release of tension and a new understanding. This doesn’t mean a sunshiney happily-ever-after; it means a chance for growth. (I actually believe this is true for all books, but it’s especially important for YA.)

This author has great work in store, but just isn’t there yet.

Brynne Rebele-Henry, the galley note is anxious to tell us, is a prolific poet and still a teen. Those qualities (touted as advantages by the book’s marketing) make complete sense when looking at the book’s shortcomings.

From a craft perspective, the book is excessively repetitive and has little narrative structure. It has intense emotion and an extended metaphor instead of character development. These qualities are perfect in poetry, but don’t translate well to the novel. (I was reminded of another recent read, Who Put This Song On?, by Morgan Parker, another poet’s first novel, which has similar problems jumping forms.)

The book has intense raw emotion, yes, but doesn’t look at a big enough picture to have any context or perspective. The writing is poetic but immature, and the supporting characters are cardboard-cutouts of baseless evil. That’s all perfectly understandable coming from a teen debut.

If a 19-year-old friend dropped this manuscript on my desk, I’d be so excited for them. It would show me raw talent, bravery, and a keen eye for metaphor. I’d tell them, honestly, that I thought they had tremendous talent and should keep writing, because their next book is going to be something special. But I would never tell them to try to get that manuscript published as-is. It just isn’t ready.


Content warnings for Orpheus Girl include homophobia/transphobia/queer hate (on-page, portrayed negatively), discussion of suicidal ideation, semi-on-page suicide attempt, family abandonment and rejection, on-page injury, on-page serious car collision, and depiction of abuse of queer people including highly graphic scenes of electroshock therapy. The book also includes moderate language and moderate on-page sexual content.
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dnf @ 89 pages. I just could NOT get into this book. at first I was really excited and intrigued by the premise but this book just didn’t deliver. It felt like a college essay back when there was a prompt about a fictional character influencing your life. The author just kept saying “and like Orpheus”. Like WE GET IT! This was just soooo boring and on top of the author constantly trying to guide me through the book rather than letting me read it myself, I’m glad I didn’t waste my time finishing this book.
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Orpheus Girl is a heartbreaking story about two queer girls who are sent to a camp to be "fixed."  It's definitely a heavy book that faces a lot of difficult topics head on. Raya and Sarah are such beautiful characters, and I cherished reading the relationship between the two. Raya's obsession with Greek mythology, and particularly the story of Orpheus resonated throughout the story, and it was really interesting seeing the author interweave myths into the story.
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I found the writing in this book to be quite confusing, particularly at the beginning. It took me a while to realise how long Sarah and Raya had been together/known each other. 

However the book did tackle really serious topics. I would recommend this to those looking for a really deep discussion on homophobia and conversion therapy. For me, the book was difficult and uncomfortable to read. While this may have been the intent, I will find this book difficult to recommend for our regular teen customers.
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I wanted to love this. I found the writing style to be very awkward and bland. I appreciated the nonlinear story telling and I love the retelling aspect, but it was too on the nose for me. 

I feel like it would benefit from another round of edits.
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Thank you to Netgalley for providing an e-arc in exchange for an honest review!

This was a HEAVY read. Every step of the way, Raya broke my heart. She's a teen in middle of nowhere, conservative, religious Texas, she's gay, and loves her best friend Sarah. She's been hiding who she truly is her whole life and when the truth comes to light, she is "disappeared."

I was constantly uncomfortable while reading this, whether it was because of the awful things the supposed Christians said to her or the "treatment" she had to endure so she could "fixed." This book is not for the faint of heart but is one everybody should read.
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Orpheus Girl was a short, hard-hitting novel. The plot of the book was unlike anything I have ever read and while reading, I couldn't help but think about how many people were forced to go through such a traumatic experience and it broke my heart.

The characters were well developed and I liked how the author was in the present but kept flashing back to the past. This helped to 'set the scene' - as it were - of the deeply religious town and the people who lived there. 

I wished that the book was longer and perhaps spent more time at the conversion therapy to really show how desolate the main characters became from the trauma they were put through. (SIDENOTE: I know that seems strange to have wanted the author to delve more into that, but I find - personally - that the most amazing part of the book is when the characters gain their strength again and fight for themselves despite having hit rock bottom and feeling helpless and hopeless). 

The only other thing is that the author said the same thing many times and while that may go unnoticed in a longer book, I noticed it more as it was quite short. 

Apart from those two things, I thought this book was brilliant and thought-provoking. The writing itself flowed so nicely and really suited the voice of the main character. I think this is definitely a book to check out, but please be warned of the dark themes of this book and potential triggers.
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I didn't like this book. It seems to be everything I want in a book: teen lesbians and Greek mythology. It's not because this book was sad and depressing (which it was) but a lot of scenes made no sense to me and everything went by in a blur. The writing was not my favourite. Raya's narration seems a bit "This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and then it ended." Even the scenes that I think were supposed to be wild and crazy, like the car crash or their escape, seemed so nonchalant. It read a bit like "We escaped the place, then we got into a car crash. Then we woke up at a new place." Like what??? A car crash just happened and we're moving on already?? I know people hate comparing all conversion therapy books to The Miseducation of Cameron Post but this just DEFINITELY reminded me of that book with the addition of the electroshock therapy. There's the 2 gay girls and the one gay flamboyant guy (who is basically Boris from The Goldfinch) and the one staff-member who is struggling with their gayness themself. It didn't seem original to me and it just seemed like another sad gay conversation therapy novel. There were also some parts that I feel were unnecessary, like Raya's obsession with her absent mother or her "love" for Greek mythology that was never really shown whatsoever. Another thing that was unecessary: putting which Greek myth character corresponds to the book character at the back. It sort of cheapened the idea of figuring out the symbolism to me. Their escape and Char's confliction personality that was only used for convenience made no sense. 

The whole retelling was not really a retelling besides Raya repeating "I'm like Orpheus because I'm going to get my girl!" I thought for sure that Sarah was going to stay behind and either die or actually want to be turned straight. 

While I know this book will help some other people, it definitely didn't move me emotionally.
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Orpheus Girl is the story of a young lesbian, Raya, growing up in Texas during the 90s knowing full well that who she is, must remain hidden. 

Raya, Orpheus, was left with her Grammy at two years old when her mom went off to be a tv star. Raya and her Grammy have lived with the grief ever since. Raya, who has no mother, has scars from a childhood surgery, must hide who she truly is, who she loves, in order to stay safe. But even when you’re so careful, sometimes being caught is inevitable. Orpheus must descend into hell in order to save Eurydice.

The writing is very poetic and beautiful and the style is gripping and romantic - even when horrifying you. For such a small book, it packs a seriously moving and empactful punch. I for one cannot wait for more books by Rebele-Henry, her way with prose and of making a classic myth story queer is all I need to want more.
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I unfortunately just wasn't a fan of the writing with this one. I'm sure others will like it, but I don't know that I'm the right audience- I was intrigued by the plot, but wasn't able to enjoy myself while reading.
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While poetic at times, I felt like this book was missing the factor to both being me in, and then keep me reading. This book is a topical subject of LGBT youth in small town America, as someone who grew you in that atmosphere it should have grabbed my attention and kept me there, but instead I was more interested in the language of the writing and the weird formatting of the book, 

So, overall, while the themes are hard, and the story has a wonderful ending, I’m not sure this is something I would talk about outside my grievances while reading.
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This was a phenomenal book and also a very hard book. The concept of a Orpheus and Eurydice retelling with a lesbian couple in a gay conversion camp is so fascinating. It was executed very well. The characters are dynamic, fascinating people. Even though this is a shorter book, just shy of 200 pages, there is a lot packed into here. 
While I loved this book, it was also very hard to read. There were quite a few times that I had to put it down. This book doesn't shrink away from some very important issues.
TW: Homophobia, violence to LGBTQ characters, and Conversion Therapy.
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