Friday, 7 June 2013

review: Openly Straight

by Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 28 2013
young adult contemporary
ARC received from publisher (thank you!)

Rafe knows how lucky he is to be openly gay in his tolerant community, but he doesn't want to be defined by his orientation any more. It's why he decides to move to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, and why he decides to keep quiet on his sexuality. A male world of sports, testosterone and popularity opens up for him, and Rafe plunges into it... but he's also falling in love with one of his new friends, and hiding one part of him feels a lot like hiding all of him.
The cover:

Hmm. It shouts "video game" to me, and old 8-bit video games at that. The idea of checking what type of person you are is intriguing, but I don't think it's executed well here. Also, the title font doesn't really fit the scheme of things, though the bright blue is okay.

The book:

Openly Straight is basically everything you could want from a story featuring an (almost) all-male cast: friendship, racism and all types of love tackled; highs and lows and fuzzy warm moments; and some absolutely, absolutely hilarious scenes. The themes are probably the highlight of the novel. Explored in Rafe's genuine, questioning voice, his mindset develops and takes the reader with him as he searches the differences between "tolerance" and "acceptance" and decides whose opinions matter to him.

Rafe himself is lovely. At the beginning, Rafe seems potentially arrogant and a tad obnoxious, but he soon gets his choice of friends and priorities straight. It's then we get to see Rafe's smartness and vulnerabilities, the things he thinks and the problems he ponders. Put him together with Ben, Toby and Albie, and you have an amazing brotherhood. Toby and Albie are probably the best odd pair I know in fiction; they're both a little weird (and fully aware of it) and make for the funniest. scenes. ever.
     "I want to save the children. I want to celebrate with all the people of the earth. I want to put candles in their hearts.
     Toby was standing in the middle of our once-again-disastrous dorm room, swaying, holding a pencil for a microphone and wearing a huge pair of yellow-framed sunglasses that engulfed his face. Albie sat his desk, his head in his hands, trying to study. I couldn't take my eyes off Toby, who gave new meaning to the phrase train wreck.
     It was Sunday night after Thanksgiving, I'd just gotten back from Colorado, and Toby was being some yellow-framed-sunglasses-wearing version of Michael Jackson. He was holding court in front of a make-believe audience, imploring them to give peace a chance.
     "What the fuck is happening?" I asked no one in particular, as Toby began singing a song that neither rhymed nor made sense.
     "Feed the world. Give the children Slankets because Snuggies are too big and they are hungry."
     "His mom streamed that Michael Jackson movie on Netflix over Thanksgiving," Albie said in a monotone. "Now he thinks he's a pop star and a humanitarian. I'll admit it's one of his more annoying phases."
     "And you get a car. And you get a car," Toby was saying, pantomiming handing out small cars to an audience that perhaps only he could see." (p. 262 - 263)
     Rafe: "Does Toby know?"
     [Albie] shrugged. "It's not something we really talk about. Gee, what is it about me that attracts all the gays? I'm like Lady Gaga or something." (p. 277)
     "Me and Ben," I said, my teeth nearly chattering.
     [Toby's] eyes lit up. "Are you cereal?"
     "Totally. Totally cereal."
     "That's great!" he said.
     I grimaced. Well, not so great, actually."
     "He hits you?"
     I did a double take. With Toby, it was hard to tell when he was serious. (p. 281)
And ohh, Ben. Ugh, it is impossible to not find him attractive, considering we're in Rafe's first-person POV. He's tall (point), muscled (point) and a soccer player (POINT POINT POINT). He's also the perfect philosophical springboard for Rafe's musings; they talk together about humanity, friends, family, love. Ben is also all the more endearing for his care of his friend Bryce (who doesn't, in my opinion, get enough page time).

Rafe is also immensely lucky in parents and BFF. His mom and dad are hippy-ish and happy, and while Claire Olivia seems a little unlikeable initially through Rafe's viewpoint, their friendship is undeniable when they're interacting together.

This plot hinges on the relationships between the characters, and as such, no scene or chapter feels superfluous. Around the climax, the pacing gets blurry--time passes quickly, then an abrupt cut to a real-time scene--and the ending is open, in that there is no neat resolution to Rafe's and Ben's relationship. Still, Rafe himself comes to a few conclusions in regards to his worldview, and it's enough to reassure us things will work out okay.

Ethnic balance: 2.5 1.5 out of 5. Ben and Bryce are black, but I don't think anyone else's ethnicities are mentioned. Still, having a POC as the love interest is a major step forward. Unfortunately, turns out Ben is not black, which dials back the progressiveness of this relationship to about 1, and makes me tremendously sad. :(

Rating: 4.7 out of 5