THERE'S A GROWING BODY of literature about growing up with gay parents, but it doesn't keep pace with or nearly match the visibility of the confederacy of dunces against "nontraditional" families. In 2008, Arkansas did everything short of seceding to prevent gay couples from raising children, when it passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting unmarried, cohabiting couples from adopting or serving as foster parents. "Queerspawn" literature combats these movements by showcasing the normalness of childhood with the gays, replete with as much joy and angst as any other. Unfortunately, Melissa Hart's coming-of-age memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, lingers a little too long in normalcy.
Melissa's mother, fed up with playing straight Stepford housewife, leaves her husband when Melissa is young to build a new home with her live-in girlfriend. Driven by spite and conservatism, her father uses her mother's homosexuality to wrench custody of the children. Hart's childhood is unevenly split between a lively bohemian home in the Mexican-cultured city of Oxnard, California, and her Fred Mertz-esque father's staid tract house in Manhattan Beach. Although Melissa painfully misses her mother throughout the novel, the separation puts her mom's gayness on a backburner for most of the story.
Hart's tone is pleasant enough, but don't expect much originality. At times her teenage memories are over-stuffed with feeling, at once too much and not enough. At the end of each chapter is a recipe of sorts, in which story lines and feelings serve as instructions and ingredients. These unsubtly deliver an emotional playback of what just occurred, and read like gimmicks rather than creative interludes.
So much for the style, but what about the subject? Hart has plenty to work with, not just a gay mom, but the pain of divorce and separation from her mother and emotional distance from her quick-tempered father. Her problems don't stop at home: Both in her diverse public school and in her first serious relationship, she feels outcast by her whiteness. It's this last struggle that she devotes the most energy and pages to, but in trying to show her family as only a part of her upbringing, she strays a bit too far from the most captivating element of the book.