On the cover one of the featured reviews just says, “Poignant,” (Entertainment Weekly). This is the perfect word to sum up this novel. It is a novel with a glimpse into triumphs and struggles of a handful of young gay men. David Levithan writes a story where you as a reader slip into many lives and feel a distinct connection to every one of them. You feel their struggles and their triumphs. It is a book that gives you a very real and important glimpse into the lives of these young men.
The story revolves around two teenage boys named Craig and Harry who are out to break the world record for the longest kiss. They are ex-boyfriends who have remained good friends. They choose to break this record to make a statement and as a sign of solidarity for a friend of theirs who was assaulted for being gay.
Orbiting their story are three other stories. There is Peter and Neil. Two teenagers who are in a well established relationship but are struggling to determine what the future holds for them. Avery and Ryan have just met at a dance. They are in the process of getting to know one another and deciding what, if anything, is going to happen with them. And there is Cooper a young man who is lost and desperately looking for a place to belong and feel like someone cares.
The story is mostly told in the second person view point. The narrators are the spirits of those gay men who have passed away. It is heavily implied that they are the spirits of them who died from AIDS. At first the voice may throw some people off, since it is an uncommon point of view to use for a narrator. But it is what makes this novel. These voices are speaking not only to these young men but to us as readers as well. They want to tell us how their lives were and to show us how far things have come. They also want to make sure we understand how important a struggle is and how it important it is to never hide from your emotions. They want to pass on the lessons they learned during their own lives. They express what we need to see, understand and takeaway from the story.
The viewpoint also makes it easier to connect to our characters as well. For me it felt like the narrators were caregivers or parents of these teenagers. They want to tell them so much, to make them see that their low points will not last forever. I wanted these teenagers to be able to hear the narrators. To be able to hear them tell them that life is getting better even if at times it doesn’t seem so. The narrators are passing on hope and telling the characters to not give up. They fought and struggled and the fight is not over yet.
The voice also provides us a time frame of the struggle for gay rights. For some it may seem like we have not come far but these narrators tell us otherwise. Many of them died alone. Many of them lost their families and many were never able to be out. Always had to hide away a very important part of themselves. Yes, many of these problems still exist today and unfortunately will probably exist for quiet a while. But the narrators give us a context of how far this fight has come. The fact that these boys can even attempt this kiss in a public place is a testament to that. They know the fight is far from over but they implore us and the characters to never give up.
The other aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was the variety of characters. Every one of them faces a struggle and portrays a significant type of story. Neil is in a relationship with Peter which seems ideal. But we see that his life is not. His parents “accept,” him but they are reluctant to speak out-loud about their son’s sexual orientation.
Ryan lives in a small town. He has friends and accepting family but he is struggling against a bully. One classmate is out to get him and make his life miserable. Ryan is struggling with not allowing the actions and words of one ignorant bully define him. He is angry and he lets this anger control his life too often. He is desperate to escape and find a life where he does not have this daily struggle.
Avery is transgender. He is struggling to find a place in the world. We see that he is somewhat comfortable in his skin and life but also has many insecurities. Avery is desperate to find a way to have a life that he enjoys and one that doesn’t involve him questioning everything all the time. His character is interesting because his story isn’t about him transitioning or making the decision to transition. He has been living this life for a while and we get to see that the struggle to find a way to belong never goes away.
Craig is not out to his family until the attempt to break the record begins. His family finds out in the middle of it and do not react well. They are confused, lost and upset. Craig can’t explain and talk it out with them. He struggles to find a way to deal with their reaction. He wants them to be on his side and he has to find a way to accept how they reacted. He also has to find a way to understand their position and a way to make them understand and see that this does not change who he is as a person.
Cooper’s story is the hardest to take. Cooper is a closeted young man. His parents discover his sexual orientation and react in a negative fashion. Cooper runs away and spends the novel searching of a reason to continue living this life. He is like so many of the lost youth who do not see where they can do or what is left for them in this world.
Levithan does a fantastic job at giving us a glimpse into multiple lives. We do not need to have an entire novel for each of these characters. This brief looks gives us what we need to understand the struggles and lives of gay youth.
I enjoyed the emotional impact of these story. I enjoyed the multiple story lines and the ability to see what other lives are like. This novel tells us that everyone has a story and that every story matters. It also tells us that the fight for equal rights and acceptance is far from over but it has come far. Things have changed and will continue to change.