No Filter and Other Lies
by Crystal Maldonado
A fat, half-Puerto Rican teenager secretly uses her friend's face to create a fake Instagram account in Crystal Maldonado's nuanced YA novel about balancing control and boundaries. No Filter and Other Lies is a compelling and heartening read with a remarkable protagonist, authentic characters, an addictive plot and vital messages about healthy relationships.
Seventeen-year-old Kat Sanchez wishes her Instagram account had more followers. For that, she needs to compete with "perfect influencers" who look nothing like her: "So few are brown. None are fat." But Kat feels this shouldn't make a difference--her Instagram page showcases her photography, not her image. "Doesn't my art matter?" she wonders.
Her dismal following is only one aspect of her life over which Kat feels she has no control. Her apparent powerlessness is one of the reasons she tells lies, like the ones she uses to avoid admitting that her feelings for Hari, her best friend and sometimes hookup, are platonic. Her all-male friend group is constantly "on"--always "vying for the funniest joke or wittiest retort... but with Hari [she] can just... breathe." She doesn't want him as a boyfriend but also doesn't want to lose him, especially since he's the only one who knows her biggest secret: that she doesn't have a good relationship with her parents. When they were 18 and pregnant with Kat's younger brother, they moved to their own house and left Kat to live with her grandparents: "I don't know why. And maybe I won't ever find out."
One Fur All, the animal shelter where Kat works, brings her solace. A few of the photos she has taken of the big dogs for social media have even gone "semiviral" and the adoption rate has increased since she was hired; "I count it among my greatest victories when I help get one of them adopted." Working alongside her is Becca, who quit social media after her success as a YouTuber pulled her into a dark place of obsession over views, creepy commenters and online cliques. "I'm almost a little annoyed that she gave it up so easily," Kat thinks. "What I wouldn't give for that kind of visibility."
After one awful day of feeling rejected, Kat uses a photo of Becca to start a new Instagram account. "Max Monroe" soon has more followers than Kat's real account. She even attracts the attention of Elena, a popular Instagrammer with a "sugary" aesthetic and confident vibe. Kat-as-Max starts to confide in Elena, relieved to finally have a connection with someone. Though the fake persona becomes too complex to maintain and by lying she could lose everything she's earned, Kat would rather risk it than return to the lie she's carried all her life: "the lie that I'm wanted."
Maldonado (Fat Chance, Charlie Vega) allows her characters to act like real teens: emotional, messy. They bicker with each other, stop talking and resume talking, tease and encourage. Though Kat comes into her queerness during the story's events ("So, bisexuality confirmed"), the plot doesn't shift focus to a coming-out story. Her newfound attraction to girls is portrayed as a natural path in her wider journey, not as a hardship. Maldonado seamlessly incorporates Kat's first date with a girl--the stomach butterflies, the casual-but-not-too-casual outfit decisions, the conversation that warms like a carefully tended fire.
A touchingly rendered relationship between Kat and her grandparents adds wholesome interactions that, besides being much needed and thoroughly enjoyable, serve as acknowledgment of how familial support and love ("my grandparents are always reminding me that I'm enough") can be a huge help in tempering the tailspins characteristic of young adulthood. Her grandparents further model a kind of unity and working partnership that Kat doesn't see between her own parents.
The validation Kat seeks from Instagram seems to relate to her abandonment by her parents; being "unwanted" by them intensifies her need to be seen and admired. The fact that her brother--"the chosen one"--lives at home worsens the blow for Kat, an example of the way even perceived preferential treatment is demoralizing. Moreover, Kat's weekly dinner with her parents feels to her like dining with strangers; through Kat's efforts to maintain ties with them, Maldonado acknowledges the exhausting nature of one-sided relationships. Kat's yearning for positive attention becomes most apparent in her resolute determination to find a home for Cash, a three-legged pit bull no one wants to "deal with." Securing a family for Cash is a constant guidepost for Kat, one that she never ignores. Together these scenarios reflect a universal desire to be wanted--to be recognized for one's strengths, to be accepted as oneself, to be loved without conditions.
Remarkably, through it all, Kat never seeks to change herself. Not her body, "the wrong kind of fat." Not being half Puerto Rican and mediocre at speaking Spanish. Not her job at the dog shelter or her home with her grandparents in Bakersfield, Calif., a city "two hours from anything that matters." Kat's certainty about who she is, what she likes and what she wants to be known for adds an important element: Maldonado's protagonist is a self-confident teen who simply wants a say in how people see her. It's believable, then, that a desperation builds so strongly in her that she won't shut down the fake Instagram account. Readers will know her lie is bound to backfire, which makes the novel all the more captivating. --Samantha Zaboski