Representation Matters: Why Hannah Bonam Young's "Out on a Limb" made me cry happy tears.

I've been reading for over a decade. I've been reading romance specifically for at least four years, and not once have I seen myself represented so exactly as I did while reading Out on a Limb. 

Hi, I'm Gab. I was born with radial dysplasia (which basically means I'm missing a bone in my arm, making it shorter than my other one) and without a thumb on my left hand.

 It's not something I've ever been embarrassed about - it's just been who I am. But as an avid book reader, I did notice that the books I read didn't seem to have anyone like me in them. 

Sure, plenty of characters had the same characteristics that I do - and if you follow me on Bookstagram, you've definitely seen me gush about it a few times. And in all honesty, I didn't realize how much I wanted to see it until I did. 

When I first heard about Out on a Limb, it was Mother's Day, and I remember being so excited about it that I told my mom & commented on Hannah's post about it. 

And then, I was lucky enough to receive an ARC (thank you Hannah, I literally love you), and then proceeded to cry for the entirety of the four days it took me to read it. 

Don't get me wrong - I laughed a lot too. Like, a lot. This book was as funny as it was heartwarming.

 To sum this book up in so many words (and with as little spoilers as I can provide) the female MC, Win, has a one-night stand with a lovely man named Bo (like, can I buy him on Amazon or something? Where do you get one of those?) and Win becomes pregnant. This book follows their journey to parenthood. I would also like to add that both of them have a disability - Win has a limb difference, like me (and Hannah!!) and Bo has a prosthetic leg. 

As I said in my Goodreads review, this book felt like a warm hug. It felt like Hannah sat me down and told me that adulthood would be fine. Sure, I've heard it from so many people in my life, but "hearing" it from someone who seems to be right inside my head was the most moving feeling ever. As I told Hannah (literally in her dms, because I was that level of annoying), I feel like this book was written just for me. 

As I read it, I felt like Hannah snuck into the deep, dark corners of my brain, where I kept my "bad emotions" locked away, and put them down on paper. And in all honesty, I can't even fully explain how that feels. 

Truth be told, I was crying right from the author's note. Reading how Hannah felt scared by people saying that new moms always need an "extra set of hands" really got me. I remember being a teenager, sitting in my hand surgeon's office while he explained that there was surgery that I could get to lengthen my arm. And I remember sitting in the pediatrician's office, where she said that maybe I should do it, because it would help me in adulthood - what if I had two kids? Or even just one? How could I possibly carry them? 

I remember deciding immediately that I didn't want it. I mean, after countless surgeries already, this wasn't one that was a necessity. And thus far, I had made everything work - couldn't I make that work too? But I remember, like Hannah had said, how scared I was. I was nowhere near close to having a baby, but what if I couldn't do it? What if I was making a mistake by saying no?

And then Hannah got me again, in the author's note. 

"...I've tried my best throughout my life to not let it hold me back, it has certainly created challenges. I've always found myself attempting to perform things in private that I'll be expected to do in public. Things as small as buttoning a new pair of pants or typing to take notes in class. I've spent hours upon hours thinking through daily obstacles, coming up with small adjustments, and planning out my days in agonizing detail in order to avoid any awkwardness or failure."

I read this line and literally (not kidding) started sobbing. Although I'm someone who's been able to do everything that I've wanted to do (I mean, I was a cheerleader, and I played field hockey, and now I figure skate!!) I remember being a little kid and being worried that my peers would be able to do something that I couldn't do. Even going to college, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to take notes on my laptop as fast as my peers can. (Spoiler alert: I can. And I can type faster than some of them too.)

As the book progressed, I felt like Hannah had taken everything that's ever been inside my brain and poured it into Win. Like, take this from chapter seven (and honestly, these had me crying like a frickin' baby):

"I didn't want to achieve despite myself. I didn't want to defy anything. I just wanted to feel ordinary. To not overcompensate every day. I wanted to be bad at things and have people laugh at me because that's life. I didn't want pity... And when I was great at something like swimming, I didn't want to feel praised for what I'd overcome. I wanted to just be good."

I've always been a "Type A" kind of person. I was always trying to be the best at everything I did, and it took me a while to realize that I was overcompensating for everything that I couldn't do. I mean, I can't do pushups. Some buttons are hard for me to do. Tying kid's shoes is sometimes hard for me if their foot is at a certain angle, and I can't get a good grip. I mean, I failed my road test twice (because I'm a nervous driver) but I remember wanting to pass so badly the third time, because the driving instructor saw my hand and immediately asked me if I could even hold the wheel correctly, and I wanted, more than anything, to show her that I could do it. (I did, by the way. It was a fantastic victory.)

But I tried so hard to be good at everything, that I can't even think of too many things that I can't do. But what I lacked in limbs, I tried to make up for in everything else. I studied like crazy. I graduated college in three in a half years, in the middle of a pandemic, which is impressive, but it just felt like something I was supposed to do all along. It was always weird for me to share my achievements with people - it was like everything I did right was a crazy achievement because of my hand, and that was weird. So I understood Win a lot to that extent - I just wanted to be treated like everyone else, even if I didn't look like everyone else.  

The more I read of Out on a Limb, the more I saw myself in Win. And there were times that I saw myself in her, and surprised myself - because it was never something that I had thought of before. Like, in chapter twenty-eight, where (spoiler alert!) Bo and Win find out that their happy, healthy little baby has ten fingers and ten toes. Win then goes on to say:

"All ten fingers and toes. Every sense of relief is sharply followed by shame. Every wave of shame is met with confusion. Confusion gives way to guilt. I immediately want to reassure myself that I wouldn't have loved the baby less if they'd had my hand. That I don't love myself any less than I would have if I had two fully formed hands. Even if I already know those things to be true, I still feel the need to repeat it, over and over. But my initial reaction was relief. I'm glad that the baby won't have to struggle in ways that I have."

I annotated these lines with "i am literally hysterically crying," which is pretty accurate. I was hysterically crying. I, like Win, have a limb difference that is not hereditary. But there is still that little fear. Not that it would be a bad thing. Not that it's a bad thing to have. But it's there. 

I've mentioned a lot of the "sad" moments of Out on a Limb that I related to Win. But there were so many happy & funny moments that I related to her too. First of all, we have like, the same sense of humor. She would make jokes about her hand, which, I do too (I literally tell kids at work that they can give me a "high four" instead of a high five and I think it's HYSTERICAL) and she just seemed to get me on such a deep level all around. Which, in turn, meant that Hannah got me on a deep level all around, because she literally wrote the book. DUH. 

This is one of those books where I wish I could hug the author. And Hannah, I wish I could hug you. I want to shout out from the rooftops how important & meaningful this book is to me, and how you showed that people that look like me could still be loved in such an incredible way. 

And ten fingers are in fact overrated, by the way. 

(Also. I want to take a moment and say that Win's camp idea had me literally bawling. Like, bawling. IYKYK.)

all my love,
gab <3