The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe came on my radar when it was a Book of the Month selection last year. I wasn't sure what it was about, but the cover intrigued me, so I added it to my list. (I have no shame in saying that sometimes an aesthetically pleasing cover influences my reading choices.) I will say, this one was a pleasant surprise. I liked it much more than I was expecting. The cast of characters has to be one of the most unique ones I have ever read and it was truly a one of a kind story. Often times, I feel like I read books with the same recycled plotlines, but The Knockout Queen is different. It is a nontraditional coming-of-age story about friendship, love, and discovering yourself.
Bunny and Michael are a friendship case of opposites attract. Both are high schoolers trying to navigate their way through life in their oppressive California town. Bunny is a tall, blond and beautiful athlete, while Michael has a pony tail, septum piercing, and hidden sexuality. Michael meets men online for rendezvous and ends up falling in love for the first time with a much older man. Rumors begin to circulate about Michael and Bunny makes a rash decision that changes the trajectory of her life forever.
I felt a kindred connection to Michael as he navigated his way through high school. He is sarcastic and funny, but also wise beyond his years. I wanted to reach through the pages, give him a big hug, and let him know that high school is but a blip of your life. He was so endearing and his relationship with Bunny bordered on idolization, but there was something about it that I loved.
The Knockout Queen does a great job with character representation (specifically with the LGBTQ+ community) and with nontraditional family units. Michael lives with his aunt because his father essentially left him and his mother recently got out of jail. She is living with Michael's sister in a small apartment and there wasn't room for Michael to move in. He lives next door to Bunny, who lives with her father who is a well known real estate salesman in the area. Michael notices Bunny when he sneaks his cigarettes in the side yard and they end up becoming quick friends. They live in a cozy corner of California that reminded me of all the cookie cutter subdivisions that pop up everywhere; where every house looks identical and the only way you can differentiate who has more money than who is by what they pay extra for on additions to the yard.
While I laughed along with Michael's witty banter and Bunny's odd habits, I wasn't expecting the book to take the dark turns that it did. This one has some heavy subject matter, including domestic violence, unjust court systems, homophobia, violent assault scenes and living with an alcoholic parent/caregiver. Thorpe does a great job of incorporating all of these themes with this story of high schoolers trying to discover themselves and dream outside the realms of their suburban town. There is a story here that some kid out there will connect with and that is freaking amazing.
The Knockout Queen will give you all the feels. I think I could psycho analyze this book all day long, but I will spare you and just recommend that you pick it up and give it a read.
4 - 4.5 stars
“Is there a darker night of the soul than eighth grade?”
“My mom said it’s different when it’s the woman who’s violent. It strikes people as abnormal. Like, it’s natural for a guy to just ‘lose his temper,’ but if a woman does the same thing, then it’s a sign of something deeper wrong, like psychologically or almost metaphysically.”
Content/trigger warnings: homophobia, violence, domestic abuse, alcoholism