The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

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