A juicy love story that does Philly justice

Girls with Bad Reputations, by Xio Axelrod

3 minute read
The book cover. Title & author below a colorful illustration of a Black woman with a red afro striding through giant flowers.

Girls with Bad Reputations, the second novel in Xio Axelrod’s Lillys series (following the members of an all-women rock band on the cusp of stardom) accurately captures the internalizing pressure of the Black upper and working classes through its protagonists. Kayla, the daughter of academics, hides her nascent music career. Meanwhile, Ty, a former Ivy League student, was plagiarized and accused of assault by a friend. Now, Kayla is the drummer for The Lillys, and Ty struggles as a bus driver for the band’s US tour.

When I was younger, I mistakenly viewed romance novels as superficial fluff until I realized the numerous social topics they addressed, including assault and sexual oppression. Girls with Bad Reputations goes further, addressing racial insecurity, prison culture, and educational bias.

Finding myself on the page

I definitely understood the racial hypervigilance Kayla experiences with her mother. Being a part of the Black middle class means scrutinizing yourself harder than the white people around you—from your clothes to your speech to your posture—while working three times harder to get taken seriously. You’re taught to always make certain you're the above-average exception and not the status quo. My mother frequently impressed on me the importance of appearance, steered me away from working-class friends, and discouraged natural hair styles. Like Kayla’s academic mother, my academic mother’s hypervigilance also stemmed from racial fear.

I equally recognized my story in Ty. He’s an English major at an Ivy League university when a close white friend plagiarizes him. When he confronts her, she accuses him of assault, catalyzing his leaving. I had a slightly similar experience at Cornell in my grad program. A faculty member, let's call her Folly Fight, tried racially segregating the graduate class. I thought I could talk her down at her office hours, but instead she told me I was disruptive, claimed I discussed race, and asked why I couldn't be a "good Black". Note: NONE of the Black students in her class had EVER discussed race, but she claimed that all the same.

After our meeting, she emailed my chair and the graduate chair claiming I had burst into her office yelling. Luckily, all of the minority students came forward with their experiences. My chair actually believed Folly, until others came forward. What if they had stayed silent? Either way, I’m still horrified that Folly was bold enough to initiate a lie while ostracizing so many.

Through Ty, Axelrod also addresses the plight of Black men unjustly accused and wrongly incarcerated, swept away by uninterested administrators. She also writes about the potential of prison sexual assault and the challenge of accessing education and stable jobs for released men.

Great writing, great city

With each new novel, Axelrod elevates her craft, and The Girl with Stars in Her Eyes (the first Lillys novel) cemented my love. Her excellent writing remains unafraid to plumb the emotional caverns of the human experience. She provides realistic, grounded characters with understandable insecurities. While this deliciously hefty novel is almost 18th century in its length, clocking in at more than 400 pages, every single page slowly builds the relationship between the two leads.

The cherry on top is the Philadelphia knowledge Axelrod twines into her story. A New Jersey native, she grew up in Philly, and unabashedly references music-scene icons like the Electric Factory. She also folds her intricate music-production knowledge into the text and avoids simplifying complex musical terms. The details add texture and specificity to her writing.

If you love good, densely written romance novels, where each page is a thick juicy steak, with great Philly references, then check out Girls with Bad Reputations at your favorite Free Library branch or bookstore, or on Kindle and audiobook.

What, When, Where

Girls with Bad Reputations. By Xio Axelrod. Naperville: Sourcebooks Casablanca, February 6, 2024. 448 pages, paperback; $16.99. Get it on Bookshop.org.

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