UNEXPECTING by JEN BAILEY
A REVIEW by ALEXA DUNCAN
Unexpecting by Jen Bailey is being marketed as Heartstopper and Juno, and while this is a great marketing ploy. I have to say, Unexpecting was rather…unexpected for me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some aspects of the book. The concept itself is very, very interesting. A gay teenager, Ben, gets his best friend Maxie pregnant at summer camp after an “experiment” gone wrong. Maxie and her family want to have the baby adopted out while Ben, still reeling from his own issues with his absent father, wants to keep the baby.
The decision whether or not to keep the baby is the main conflict throughout the novel. Of course, it’s a very important one and I’m glad it’s the main plot. Howe3ver, I do have some gripes with this book that I can’t seem to get out of my mind, even after I’ve finished reading it. My first gripe is this: Maxie. Maxie isn’t a bad character by any means, and my gripe is more about her place within the narrative. This book is told solely from Benji’s point of view, and while I think it’s important to show parenthood from a teen boy’s perspective, I think I would have liked this book a lot better if Maxie got a point of view as well. Throughout the narrative, we see Maxie as a background character, barely present within the story–even though she’s the one carrying Ben’s baby.
Furthermore, Ben doesn’t make much of an effort to see how she’s doing or if she needs anything. It was frustrating to read, especially in the first half of the novel wherein Ben is so focused on himself and his needs and not what Maxie and the baby might need. Other characters gently call him out on this, and his behavior is somewhat changed by the end, but it was still very disheartening to see a sixteen year old girl get treated as an incubator throughout the book. I get this is meant to be Ben’s story–a gay teen father–but I feel like it could have been done a lot better.
There’s also the matter of Ben himself. He’s clearly neurodivergent–perhaps even autistic. But this isn’t discussed int he text at all. None of the other characters even comes close to asking Ben if he needs help or therapy or anything else. There’s also a romance in here that I found kind of uncomfortable. It’s a minor part of the story so it didn’t bother me overmuch, but still. It’s there and it’s weird.
Despite all my grumps, I applaud Bailey’s attempt here. This is an interesting book, and in the hands of the right reader, it could be extremely helpful.
You can pick up Unexpected at the Argenta Library today.