Review: I Kissed Alice, Anna Birch

I’ve talked at length before about how much I love when YA queers and subverts its own tropes and clichés. And I could talk about it even further: the importance of diverse stories that reflect the diverse readership of YA cannot be overstated. I could write whole essays, in fact, about the significance of seeing familiar tropes—which historically have mostly been for and about white, cisgender heterosexuals—played out with characters that don’t fit all (or any) of those boxes. 

I could write whole essays, but this, friends, is not an essay. In fact, I’m concerned it’s not even articulate. I have been absolutely felled by enemies-to-lovers-with-a-sapphic-twist—courtesy of author Anna Birch’s debut I Kissed Alice—and now am incapable of doing anything more than yelling “I WILL TAKE 100 MORE OF THESE, PLEASE” in what I think is her general direction. Because this book won me over, and hard.

Part of that, of course, is the fact that, confoundingly, I’ve never come across a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romance before. Ever. And it’s not like I don’t know about that trope (I know it enough to have audibly gasped when I saw the blurb for this book), so I guess everything I read up to this point was heterosexual. All of it. And the premise for I Kissed Alice immediately grabbed me with how angsty and delicious it was: our two protagonists, Iliana and Rhodes, are seniors at a prestigious art school, competing for the same scholarship prize that will allow them to continue their arts education in college. Both are ridiculously competitive (of course), and each girl sees the other as the main thing standing in the way of her winning, but it’s more than just professional, creative animosity. Thanks to a misunderstanding, the two genuinely can’t stand each other on a personal level. Birch does a masterful job showing the slow, simmering dislike between them, as well as the ways in which their differences exacerbate the bad blood that’s already present: Rhodes is wealthy and privileged, but feels burned out as an artist and suffocated by her parents’ money and expectations. She sees Iliana’s effortless talent as smug, while Iliana, who comes from a family that is barely scraping by financially, is bitterly resentful of both Rhodes’s privilege and her demeanor, which she interprets as superior. It’s a classic case of pride and prejudice, and makes for an incredibly compelling starting point all by itself. 

But then, there’s the twist.

The twist—because what would a romance like this be without one?—is that, while the two girls hate each other IRL, it’s quite a different story online. Unbeknownst to either of them, they’ve spent the better part of a year collaborating on an Alice in Wonderland fancomic. And while they only know each other in this context by their usernames, Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice, there’s no doubt whatsoever that they’re falling hard. And there’s no chance whatsoever, over the course of this turbulent senior year, that their identities are going to be able to remain separate for very long.

There was, no exaggeration, absolutely nothing I didn’t love about this, but most impressive is just how right Birch gets it. Enemies-to-lovers is a hard thing to do right—especially with a story like this, where there’s genuinely a lot that our protagonists need to work through before they can arrive at any kind of healthy relationship. One of my absolute favorite things about this book is that Birch doesn’t shy away from making her characters be fully realized in ways both bad and good. All of them, including the side characters, are complex, and have as many negative qualities as they do positive. They can be selfish, and petty, and take advantage of the people around them, but you still root for them, because these things don’t make them unlikable so much as just real. So real, in fact, that I found myself reminded (sometimes uncomfortably) of some less than admirable things I did, or saw my friends do, when we were teens. And it’s honestly refreshing to see a YA romance that lets its characters be bad—not the “oh, I’m so tortured and tragic, it’s so sexy” kind of bad, but genuinely toxic to the point where they need to learn from their mistakes, own up to them, and grow to become better people. (This makes their growth much more satisfying, too!)

I loved that the love story never felt easy, and I loved that online personas (writing sapphic Alice in Wonderland fancomics! Of which there are several panels in this book!!!) became a safe place for the characters to be the people they were—unencumbered by the influences and stressors of the outside world. I loved that being queer was never made into a big deal, but wasn’t shied away from either. And I loved Iliana and Rhodes. Their progression from enemies to—well, that would be telling (but you can probably guess)—was so authentically, sensitively, and beautifully written that it had me absolutely ripping through the back half of the book, and absolutely giddy by its conclusion. 

Queering your tropes is magic, y’all. Maybe that’s the title of my future essay. 

(P.S.—Anna, if you’re reading this, I super wasn’t joking about 100 more books like this.)