From the moment I discovered what Something Real by Heather Demetrios was about, I wanted to read it. I am not a fan of reality TV shows that follow families around and document their lives, partly because I just feel like the worst sort of voyeur, but mainly because I feel it is an exploitation of the children involved who have no real choice or agency in what is going on. A book that explores this sounded fascinating. I was also a little hesitant because the synopsis made me think it could go places that I was uncomfortable with. The book did make me uncomfortable, but for all the right reasons and it is truly an excellent novel.
Seventeen-year-old Bonnie™ Baker has grown up on TV—she and her twelve siblings are the stars of one-time hit reality show Baker’s Dozen. Since the show's cancellation, Bonnie™ has tried to live a normal life, under the radar and out of the spotlight. But it's about to fall apart . . . because Baker’s Dozen is going back on the air. Bonnie™'s mom and the show's producers won't let her quit and soon the life that she has so carefully built for herself, with real friends (and maybe even a real boyfriend), is in danger of being destroyed by the show. Bonnie™ needs to do something drastic if her life is ever going to be her own—even if it means being more exposed than ever before.
Bonnie Baker is finally recovering from the reality TV circus that was her life for so long. She is in school for the first time and is now going by Chloe (as that is her preferred name, it is what I will call her from here on out). She and her brother Benny are moving on with their lives. They have friends. They have a life. Benny even has a boyfriend, and Chloe has a boy in her life that could be ready to move from crush to relationship. Their lives are thrown in to turmoil when their mom and stepdad decide to reboot the family show that caused so much turmoil in the first place. And no one will let them out of it. This is particularly hard for Chloe, who was a big part of the reason the show was canceled in the first place after she swallowed her parents' medicine cabinet full of pills and had to have her stomach pumped at the age of 13.
Chloe is a bit of a mess as you can imagine. She suffers from what anyone can see is PTSD. Anytime a camera goes anywhere near her she freaks out. Building up enough courage to take her senior picture was an ordeal. Then she goes home to find the cameras have invaded her life again: The telltale signs of my childhood are everywhere: vans with satellite dishes on top, the Mercedes with the familiar BRN4REEL license plate, and the ropes of thick black cables that crawl around the house like prehistoric predators, squeezing everyone inside until they suffocate. That is Chloe's voice, full of pain, truth, and harsh cynicism. She can also be funny, snarky, and playful and it all combines to make her so real. Her journey through this book from terrified victim to a girl who grasps her own future and has agency over her own life is a truly remarkable one. It is filled with a lot of drama and bumps in the road, but watching her grow and learn from each one makes this a fantastic read. It is a book that I actually had to put down and walk around a bit while reading due to the amount of rage I was feeling toward her mother, who is the most selfish narcissistic leech on the planet. She is a terrible human being all round. The relationship between them is also portrayed realistically. Beth is Chloe's mom. Chloe feels loyalty and even love toward her despite everything. Chloe is manipulated, her privacy is invaded, and she is never listened to, but she still feels this fierce need to protect Beth and her siblings. It is a perfect picture of what a warped and dysfunctional child/parent relationship is like.
The book has a large cast of characters from the TV people, family, and school. The individual younger siblings are not focused on much, which is okay because Chloe spends little time with them really. The three oldest, who are all the same age due to a surrogate carrying two of them, are the main focus of the sibling dynamics and I loved this part of the story. Chloe and Benny have always been extremely close and the rebooting of the TV show brings them closer than ever. They both have reasons for hating it. Benny worries about Chloe falling back into depression. Chloe worries about Benny drinking too much like their father. Benny is also concerned about his relationship with his boyfriend, Matt, which they have been keeping secret. The bond and solidarity between these two is something special. They have each other's backs and work together to preserve their sanity and lives. Benny's twin sister Lexie has a more complicated relationship with them. She actually liked the show, but is dealing with her own issues from it even if she doesn't seem to realize. The three of them grow closer and become more of a team as the book progresses and I loved tracking their relationship. Great sibling stories are one of my favorite types of stories and this is certainly one of those.
It is also a great story of friendship. The way Chloe's friends react to the news that she is Bonnie Baker is very realistic, but the way they circle around her and work hard to show her how much they care is extraordinary. They are helpful. The give good advice. They push Chloe to see things in new ways. And they are incredibly supportive of both her and Benny.
Then there is the romance, which was my greatest concern going in. I really didn't want this to be a broken girl finds boy who fixes everything story. And it is not. Hallelujah. Patrick is pretty amazing and mature for a teenage boy, but boys like hime do exist in the world. He knows what he wants out of life and one of those things is Chloe. He is not afraid to pursue her even when she is trying to push him away for his own good. But he is not a magic presence that fixes Chloe's life. He gives her a lot of support and help. He is someone she can talk to and go to for comfort. In the end though, it is CHLOE who works to save herself. She makes the choices. Patrick is there to have her back and help her in those and I LOVED this about their relationship. It definitely had its moments of drama, but what relationship between 17 year olds doesn't come with that? It is the way they dealt with it all that made their relationship a positive aspect of the book.
Basically this book was everything I wanted it to be and more. It is working with the same themes and ideas Don't Call Me Baby and You Look Different in Real Life do, but this book does all of it so much better.
Content Warning: language, underage drinking and smoking, discussions of sex