All of Us With Wings is a gorgeous, inventive work of magical realism. Unfortunately, the beauty and empowerment are marred by a romanticized relationship between a teen and her employer, 10 years her senior.
CW for this review: discussion of abusive relationships, sexual assault, statutory rape
Michelle Ruiz Keil’s YA fantasy debut about love, found family, and healing is an ode to post-punk San Francisco through the eyes of a Mexican-American girl.
Seventeen-year-old Xochi is alone in San Francisco, running from her painful past: the mother who abandoned her, the man who betrayed her. Then one day, she meets Pallas, a precocious twelve-year-old who lives with her rockstar family in one of the city’s storybook Victorians. Xochi accepts a position as Pallas’s live-in governess and quickly finds her place in the girl’s tight-knit household, which operates on a free-love philosophy and easy warmth despite the band’s growing fame.
But on the night of the Vernal Equinox, as a concert afterparty rages in the house below, Xochi and Pallas perform a riot-grrrl ritual in good fun, accidentally summoning a pair of ancient beings bound to avenge the wrongs of Xochi’s past. She would do anything to preserve her new life, but with the creatures determined to exact vengeance on those who’ve hurt her, no one is safe—not the family Xochi’s chosen, nor the one she left behind.
I’ve never felt so guilty for low-starring a book.
According to my review guidelines, I only one-star a book if I disliked reading it and think it’s poorly done and think the story or messages are, in some way, bad for the genre/community/world. All of Us With Wings, then, definitely isn’t a one-star read for me, because I can’t say it wasn’t gorgeously well-written. It is every bit the inventive, rule-breaking, lyrical piece of magical realism I was promised.
The problem isn’t in how the story was told. It’s in what story was told.
I could almost justify giving it three stars, which I say I may mean “very strong but with harmful elements or major problems.” That certainly describes All of Us With Wings.
In the end, I settled on two stars, because the problems I have with the book can’t be isolated from the strong elements. In the end, the beautiful prose and raw character work were all in service of a message I strongly object to (especially in YA) and made the last quarter of the book highly frustrating and unsatisfying.
Because this is almost an incredible book. All of Us With Wings is so close to being a book I would evangelize about to anyone who would listen. It includes some of the best interrogation of teenage trauma I’ve seen in YA, granting the protagonist, Xochi, dignity
But what is this story about? The back-cover synopsis isn’t wrong when it presents a story about a teen’s complicated relationships with her mother, her past, and the girl in her care. I love the half of this book that was about those relationships and the wacky, bloody adventures of the accidentally-summoned demons.
But that’s only half of the book. The other half of All of Us With Wings is about a romantic relationship between a deeply traumatized 17-year-old girl and her employer, a father of nearly 30 years old. It’s a story of the way this relationship, while unwise, is empowering and healing for the teen, who is ultimately in control of the situation. It is a story of forbidden love triumphing against the odds, bringing characters to a better understanding of one another.
It doesn’t matter how well you tell that story. That’s a story I fundamentally believe should not be on the YA shelf. By spending half the book on this romance, Keil undermines everything that was empowering and beautiful about Xochi’s story.
(And, as I always say when I object to a book being called Young Adult–I’m not saying teens can’t or won’t read outside of YA. I’m saying that, in marking and marketing a book specifically for teens, you are responsible for reaching a baseline of appropriateness. That’s usually not about what content is included, but instead, how that content is framed. The same way there is a difference between a book that portrays drug use and a book that promotes drug use, a book doesn’t have to promote other harmful behaviors to include them. If you’re portraying an abusive or harmful romantic/sexual relationship in YA, I believe you have the responsibility to frame it in-text as exactly that, not present it as normal or beneficial.)
Because I’m taking such a strong view of this book, I’m going to dig a little deeper into the parts of the text that led me to conclude that this harmful relationship is being romanticized and promoted. Because the ending is crucial to how I see the book, the rest of this review will go deep into spoiler territory.
The book beings with an author’s note, which raised red flags for me even as I began, optimistic about the book and oblivious to the problematic content. A full authors note set before the novel conveys a lack of confidence in the work and in readers. Instead of this note, the book really should have had proper content warnings that accurately represent what’s inside.
That’s pretty clear. That’s what Keil thinks she’s showing us: the complicated “reclaiming” of power and pleasure by a victim of abuse. Later, she writes:
“Abuse can make us self-destructive. Sometimes, we blame and want to hurt ourselves.
It can cause us to be comfortable in dangerous situations because they feel familiar.
It can drive us to do dangerous things because we long for relief and want to feel good.
Sometimes, we can avert danger by avoiding it.
But when we can’t,
dangermust be surmounted, outsmarted, survived.
Because All of Us with Wings is that sort of story, the characters sometimes make mistakes. There
isdrug use and sex and very real danger, both emotional and physical. But there is healing, too—a thread leading out of the labyrinth.”
So we’re led to expect characters who make mistakes, seeking comfort after trauma, but ultimately journey imperfectly towards healing.
Great, I say. Sounds like an incredible book that teen readers will really need. Let’s go see what kind of mistakes Xochi makes.
But it seems that the mistakes I see are different than the mistakes Keil sees in Xochi’s choices. We both seem to agree, for instance, that it was a mistake for Xochi to accept the heroin (!!) that some adults (!!) push on her at a party. That was a mistake, and it’s framed in-text as a mistake. A pretty extreme one for YA, that’s for sure, but there’s room in YA for those kinds of stories, which are needed by many teens.
But we seem to disagree about exactly why Xochi’s relationship with her 28-year-old boss is a mistake.
Compared multiple times to Romeo and Juliet, this relationship is framed as impulsive and dangerous, yes. Keil and the characters seem to agree that it was probably ill-advised and has the potential to wreak havoc on the family Xochi is
Whenever Xochi or the father, Leviticus, worry about the fact that they shouldn’t be involved, they come back to that main problem. Leviticus even makes a pros/cons list, and one objection is the biggest:
“You know the first one,” he said. “I keep thinking about her with Ky this morning. That girl needs to wage some serious teenage warfare. It would be different if she had friends her own age. But she doesn’t. She only has you.”
“Which makes me a traitor.”
“I don’t know what it makes me, aside from a shitty father. An asshole, I guess. A creep.”
“She loves you.”
“We all love each other.”
Later, Xochi tries to bring herself to her senses, again remembering not Leviticus’ age, but the impropriety of disrupting the family that way:
Seeing them together helped. Leviticus was Pallas’s father. Her father. Xochi’s boss. Fuck free love. This was a bad idea. The very worst.
Sure, I agree that hooking up with/entertaining romantic feelings for the father of the girl you’re supposed to be a live-in nanny for is a bad career move. I agree that it’ll make family dynamics complicated and lead to hurt feelings. But, for the love of all that is holy, that is not my main problem!
It’s not as though the characters don’t realize there’s a disqualifying age difference (more than sufficient that what we see them do together is a crime) and a power dynamic that makes an equal relationship
No matter how many times you did the math, seventeen was eleven years younger than twenty-eight and five years older than twelve. Five years older than Pallas.
Remember that pro/con list? Wayyy below the family dynamics issue, Leviticus brings up age:
“So what’s next?”
“You sure you want more?”
“Pallas is the deal breaker. But go on. I’m curious about this list of yours.” She gave his ankle a little shove with her foot.
“Well, I have a policy. An age limit. You fall well under the minimum.”
“Which is what?”
“Five years younger. So twenty-three.”
“All right,” Xochi said. “That’s bad. Or it sounds bad. I get that. But age is relative, isn’t it? I might be less experienced than you, but I’m not convinced you’re more mature.”
“I’m sure you’re right. A mature person probably wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.” Leviticus took a drink of water, then handed the glass to Xochi.
“We’re both in it.”
Xochi is much less bothered by
Which brings us to a high problem with the way this relationship is framed. We’re supposed to believe that the relationship isn’t predatory because Xochi is the instigator. She is going after him, so he isn’t going anything all that wrong. Strong, competent Xochi is in control of the relationship, so we shouldn’t worry about her.
Leviticus definitely sees her that way:
He opened his eyes. She was breathing hard. Artemis after the hunt. But who was the prey here?
He’d thought it was her, so young. Vulnerable. Dependent on them for her livelihood. Which was why he’d stayed away, committed never to be that guy—that sleazy, selfish, gross older guy.
But here he was. That guy for sure, led by his dick no matter what he’d decided. If she hadn’t stopped, they’d be in his bedroom right now. But she had.
Again and again, we are reminded that Xochi is mature for her age. She is responsible and worldly, in part because of her history of trauma and taking on adult responsibility at a young age. We are shown all the ways that she is “badass” and “strong,” not at all the image of a victim. The reader is presented with a sexual, grown-up woman initiating intimacy and taking responsibility.
If all that sounds weirdly familiar, it’s because that’s exactly how victims of statutory rape and other abusive relationships are often presented. That’s how abusers justify relationships with minors. It’s how minors explain these relationships to friends, to themselves. It’s how crimes against minors are minimized in courtrooms and newspapers.
I don’t know how you can read this book as anything other than condoning that relationship. Again and again, we see intimacy with this older man, her employer, as an empowering and healing thing for Xochi.
Now desire cast a spell calling the pieces back. Her lips were hers as they brushed his earlobe. Her teeth were hers as she bit his neck.
And what is Xochi healing from? An abusive relationship with an older man. The past trauma that Xochi is recovering from/avenging is her sexual assault at the hands of a trusted adult man in her life.
Keil does amazing work letting Xochi slowly, imperfectly realize how deeply wrong that past relationship was. She comes to see his lies for the abuse they were and acknowledges his actions for what they were. Her accidentally-summoned demons avenge her.
And I waited… I waited for the demons to turn on Leviticus. I thought I was reading a deeply troubling story about a teen recovering from abuse who unwittingly turns to another equally toxic relationship for comfort. As Xochi realizes she was abused in the past, she’s falling into exactly the same patterns in the present. What a sharp, devastating, honest story that would be–an unflinching look at the cycle of abuse and the real challenge of rediscovering self-worth. I was ready for a brutal twist when the demons turn on Leviticus, to Xochi’s horror and confusion.
But it never happened. Instead, Xochi and Leviticus, having been discovered by insufficiently alarmed family members, mutually step back from the sexual aspect of their relationship. They stay close, however, continuing to feed the harmful personal/romantic aspects of the relationship and leaving the door open for more intimacy in the future.
Still, there was a sweetness between them. If only she were a bit older . . . and not Pallas’s governess.
Leviticus apologizes for giving her too much responsibility, but little else. I was left with an awful feeling in my stomach, watching this girl who had been through so much run headlong into new trauma without realizing it.
In the author’s note, Keil seems to brush off possible concerns as
Xochi is challenging in exactly the way a teenager with no supervision and a lot of sorrow might be. She gets a tattoo, tries drugs, and has ill-advised sex. “They may not be perfect choices, but things can feel really empowering and even be empowering to you at 17 that you look at later and think, that was more complicated,” Keil says. It was importantAlex Heimbach and Michelle Ruiz Keil in Kirkus
Keil to empower Xochi to chart her own course.” to
It’s a very revealing quote. Xochi refers to the sex (presumably the sex with Leviticus) as “ill-advised,” a chilling minimization of the situation–that even though it wasn’t a “perfect choice,” it still had positive results.
That kind of sentiment would be shocking to me if I hadn’t already read the book, an entire novel built around that central statement. Keil truly seems to agree with Leviticus’ lie (and Xochi’s delusion) that Xochi was the one in control in that relationship.
Leviticus (and Keil) want Xochi (and the reader) to think Xochi had the power, and she used it to make her own sexual choices that ultimately empowered her on her messy, imperfect path to healing. All that would seem, to a teenager, to be true on a surface level, but only because they don’t have the maturity or the understanding of power dynamics to look past the superficial. One day, Xochi might develop that maturity and that awareness. But it won’t, as Keil says, be a realization that things were “more complicated.” It will be a realization that, once again, Xochi was a victim of abuse.
YA doesn’t have to “teach lessons.” It’s not responsible for instructing teens in exactly what behavior is good and what isn’t. Not every protagonist needs to be a role model. But when YA reinforces and supports deeply harmful ideas–ideas that teens already internalize every day, with disastrous results–I’m going to speak up.