REVIEW: Social Queue by Kay Kerr

Illustrated cover in purple/lilac with pink "talk bubbles" for the titles. On the top talk bubble is a rear view of a brown-haired white girl in red and a cat by her feet, on top of the bottom talk bubble are 5 white people, 4 guys and 1 girl all looking up at the girl on top and holding something like a flower or a coffee or an ice creamWhy I read it:  I was provided with a review copy by the publisher. The book is currently only available in/from Australia and New Zealand.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads) I thought I was nobody’s teen crush, but turns out I was just missing the signs.’

Zoe Kelly is starting a new phase of her life. High school was a mess of bullying and autistic masking that left her burnt out and shut down. Now, with an internship at an online media company—the first step on the road to her dream writing career—she is ready to reinvent herself. But she didn’t count on returning to her awkward and all-too-recent high-school experiences for her first writing assignment.

When her piece, about her non-existent dating life, goes viral, eighteen-year-old Zoe is overwhelmed and more than a little surprised by the response. But, with a deadline and a list of romantic contenders from the past to reconnect with for her piece on dating, she is hoping one of her old sparks will turn into a new flame.

Social Queue is a funny and heart-warming autistic story about deciphering the confusing signals of attraction and navigating a path to love.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): I don’t read a lot of YA – let’s face it, I’m in it for the romance. Zoe is 18 and so technically an adult but the book is very much a YA, not least because while there is a romance with a hopeful HFN ending, the main story is of Zoe’s own self-discovery and coming of age.

In her first year of university studying journalism, she wins one of three coveted four-week internships at “Bubble” an online media outlet which seemed something like a small Buzzfeed, based in her hometown of Brisbane. She’s also recently dipped her toe into the murky waters of online dating (something I have no experience with because I’m old and married) and it hasn’t gone so well. So she pitches an article for Bubble about her experiences as an autistic young woman navigating the apps. After the first article goes live, there are a five comments which seem to indicate that she’d missed prior signs from people she’d gone to school or worked a part time job with and that spurs a series where Zoe gets in contact with each of the five to find out what she missed and see if there’s a spark of something now.

Romance readers will not be surprised by who the eventual HFN is with but I will not name names here.

Zoe’s autism is front and centre in the book. At times it is somewhat didactic as she coaches one of her colleagues to stop using ableist language in her articles – this didn’t bother me at all as it fit the story and was presented more about how Zoe felt about it than as a lesson, but mostly it is about her own experience of the world. Zoe sometimes struggles to read social queues, prefers the feel of certain fabrics on her skin and hates the feel of others, has coordination and balance issues and needs a lot of quiet/alone time to recharge after the kinds of mental effort needed to put herself forward at Bubble and interact in some challenging circumstances. She can be easily overwhelmed at times and will shut down. She’s also smart, creative and ambitious. Sometimes those things don’t quite go together very well but Zoe finds a way to make it work for her.

I don’t make the mistake of thinking that Zoe’s experience of autism is universal (indeed an author’s note at the end of the book says as much) but it does give me comfort that the author is autistic herself and therefore the representation is authentic. My own experience of various neurodiverse people, young and not-so-young, rings true with Zoe in some ways and not in others (but none of the autistic people I know are identical so I wouldn’t expect otherwise).

From a social/dating perspective Zoe was, to say the least, inexperienced, – although 18 is not very old of course. But she hasn’t been on a date or flirted really yet and a lot of young people start earlier than she does. So it made sense that Zoe makes some missteps along the way. I appreciated that she took responsibility for her actions and did not seek to make excuses for herself, rather promising to learn and do better. I suppose I’d have liked her to be more specific and a little more sensitive in her apology to the person she wronged but she did face him and say sorry. I felt a bit sorry for him and I also liked him – I wonder if he will get his own story one day? (Would read.)

The story is told entirely from Zoe’s first person perspective and at times she paints a vivid word picture, such as here when she’s talking about her dad:

He bellows from the entryway and he is waving to me with his whole body, like a human labrador. ‘Morning, Z!’

I liked the depiction of loving but somewhat messy family relationships and friendships. I was a bit worried about Ariana (Zoe’s BFF who is on a gap year in London during the course of the story) at times – there felt to me like there were things unrevealed there. Some of the broader story felt a bit surface level and broad brush though.

There was one place I was very worried about Zoe as one of the five is a Very Not Nice Guy and I’d have liked a bit more comfort that Zoe had a plan in case of a repeat in the future. I understood her  reactions in the moment and she is not responsible for someone else’s behaviours but she’s also at least a little more vulnerable to a certain kind of coercion and I’d have liked her to had had some coaching maybe on what to do if a similar situation arose. (Particularly for a woman (as we all know) even though she may do nothing wrong, she may end up the victim of something and because there are awful people around who will take advantage or worse, women (unfortunately) need to have strategies in place to protect themselves. It’s not about fault, it’s about impact.)

In many ways I related to Zoe – but this particularly resonated with me:

There is nothing more nonsensical to me than being mean to someone you like. I’ve never liked ‘enemies to lovers’ as a romance trope, not if the ‘enemies’ part includes actual hurtful experiences.

I liked that the book in no way celebrated the idea of it being okay for a boy to “pull the pigtails” of a girl at school to get her attention because he “likes” her.

Ultimately, in exploring the dating scene via her articles, Zoe learns about herself, including some things she’d never even considered before and steps up to take what she wants. And she resolves some old pain and misunderstanding in ways that validate her self-worth and acknowledge that she was not at fault for not realising the subtext. (I hear you Zoe – I’m not big on subtext either.)

What else? There was brief mention of the pandemic but I guess it was anticipated it would be over by the time the book was out and things like gap years would again be possible so I had to do some mental gymnastics around that. How to address Covid in fiction is going to be a thing for a while I guess because incorporating something which is such a movable feast seems fraught.

The romance was very sweet. I could have used a little more of it but that wasn’t the story the book was telling so I can’t be too bent out of shape about it. It’s not explicit but there’s plenty of “signs” that romance readers can be happy about and a rather delightful declaration near the end there.

Like Zoe’s favourite Netflix movie To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Social Queue would make a charming film – Zoe is both endearing and prickly, kind and clueless in that way that feels real and entirely relatable and it’s written fairly episodically and framed around five or six “dates” – perfect for adaptation to the screen really, so Netflix, if you’re reading this…?

Grade: B



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