Book Review: Openly Straight

Book Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly StraightThe main thing I want to say about Openly Straight is that I loved it. But that’s not a very helpful book review, is it?

Okay, I’ll get more specific. What’s it about and why did I love it?

Openly Straight is the story of Seamus Rafael Goldberg (but call him Rafe, unless you’re his best friend Claire Olivia, in which case “Shay Shay” is acceptable). Rafe is going into his junior year of high school and is frankly quite tired of being the gay kid. Not that he’s ashamed or wishes he was other than he is. It’s just that Rafe has grown up in Boulder, Colorado with parents who are totally loving free spirits — parents who threw him a party when he came out in 8th grade, complete with party hats that said “Yay! Rafe is Gay!” on them (I kid you not). Rafe’s mom is the president of Boulder’s PFLAG chapter, and Rafe regularly speaks at local schools about being gay, answering kids’ questions and in general being the face of “gayness”. To the extent that when the civil rights movement was discussed in history class, Rafe was asked for the “gay perspective”, and random girls at school approach Rafe to get “gay” input on current events.

Finally, Rafe decides to change his life and enrolls at the Natick School, an all-boys boarding school in Massachusetts. Tiny detail he neglects to share with his parents: At Natick, he intends to not be gay. That is, he’ll still know he’s gay, but he’s not going to tell anyone. He’s tired of being seen first and foremost as gay, rather than just as Rafe, and he’s determined to start fresh with a new school and see what it’s like to just be one of the guys.

And at first, it’s kind of brilliant. He gets invited to play football! He’s accepted by the jocks! Guys include him in their guy-talk, and he’s seen as that cool new kid from Colorado. But as Rafe forms one particularly close friendship with a truly wonderful boy, the downside of his plan becomes apparent. Can he form a real friendship — and maybe more — when he’s hiding such a key piece of himself from the world? When does not telling — a passive act of omission — turn into actively lying?

It’s quite the dilemma. When Rafe finally tells his parents and Claire Olivia what he’s doing, they’re appalled and question him about going back in the closet. Rafe states that he’s not back in the closet; he knows who he is, but he chooses to keep it private — but is he just fooling himself? On the one hand, it’s easy to see the appeal for Rafe. Finally, he’s able to make friends and go through school without labels. He’s just the new kid, a decent soccer player, pretty fun to hang around, but not especially different than the rest of the gang. Rafe is careful to keep his head down. Despite his interest in writing, he declines to join the literary magazine for fear of drawing the jocks’ attention to his non-jock-like interests. And yet, as the school year progresses, Rafe comes up against more and more situations that make him uncomfortable, and the lies start piling up.

There’s a love story at the heart of Openly Straight, and it’s beautifully told, from the first moments when the eye contact lasts longer than Rafe expects, through the soul-baring late night conversations between two friends. Rafe’s love interest is a straight (until now) boy who has a heart of gold, and eventually it’s clear to both of them that their friendship has moved beyond brotherhood into some new and unknown territory.  Except, of course, it’s not really unknown to Rafe, and because he started off school “openly straight”, the other boy believes that they’re exploring something new together while Rafe knows that for him, it’s not just exploration — it’s something he’s sure of. Heartbreak is inevitable, and boy, when it comes, it’s devastating.

Rafe is a smart, wonderful, lovable main character. Through his first-person narration, we can easily understand why he makes the choices that he makes, even as we wonder whether those choices will come back to bite him. (Obviously, they do). What’s wonderful about Openly Straight is that Rafe really struggles to do right. He doesn’t want to deceive, and he refuses to feel shame. But he can’t avoid the question — and neither can we as readers — whether anything he does and any connections he makes are actually real if he’s only sharing a part of who he is.

There aren’t any easy answers for Rafe. The deeper he gets, the more he realizes that he’s trapped himself in a situation that can only go badly. No matter how much he wants to fix things, some hurts and deceptions leave permanent marks. Does Rafe learn from his choices and his mistakes? Absolutely. But there are still consequences, and I suppose part of growing up is learning that good intentions don’t necessarily override damage done.

Openly Straight makes some great points without ever feeling heavy-handed, as when a boy in English class claims that Natick is a “tolerant” place, and the teacher questions the intention of the words “tolerate” and “accept”:

I thought about that. It reminded me of the excerpt from Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story that Mr. Scarborough had assigned us. White had talked about the strange sort of tolerance his roommates had had for him back at his boarding school in the 1950s. I remembered underlining the word tolerance. I mean, if you accept something, you take it for what it is. Tolerance is different. Less. So is acceptance at the top of the pyramid? Is that what everyone wants in the best of all possible worlds? Acceptance? I rolled the idea around in my head. It didn’t feel right, somehow.

For Rafe, part of his growth in the story is coming to the realization that acceptance isn’t enough; it’s being welcomed and celebrated for yourself — all parts of who you are and what makes you you — that really is the goal. And while he’s been comfortable being out for years, Rafe has to wonder whether he’s been accepting who he is all along without fully celebrating his own self. By the book’s end, Rafe is taking definite strides toward a new way of being open and being who he is — with less worry about how others see him, and a new commitment to interacting with the world while showing his real self.

Openly Straight is a lovely, funny, sweet book that moves along quickly yet gives its characters room to breathe and live. I felt like I really knew Rafe (and I often wanted to hug him and tell that everything would work out). With relatable characters and a unique premise, this book challenges the reader in very interesting ways. Many books in the YA market today tell a version of the coming-out tale; what makes this book so special is that it deals with life after coming out. Rafe’s journey is relevant to anyone, gay or straight, who’s had to deal with fitting in, wondering how others see them, and figuring out just how they want to be seen.

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The details:

Title: Openly Straight
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: June 2013
Genre: Young Adult
Source: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I was approved to read a review copy of this book, but was unable to access it. (Thank you anyway to NetGalley and the publisher!). In the end, I borrowed this book from the library. So it goes. And given how much I loved the book, I’m sure I’ll end up buying it one of these days!

Book Review: Ask the Passengers

Book Review: Ask the Passengers by  A. S. King

Astrid Jones is a smart, funny girl who you can easily imagine having an amazing life in New York, hanging out in the Village perhaps, exploring the city with quirky and artsy friends. Unfortunately for Astrid, she does not live in the city. Born a New Yorker, Astrid and her family moved to Unity Valley, Pennsylvania — quintessential small-town USA — when she was 10 years old, and has been stuck in a rut ever since.

In Unity Valley, and in Astrid’s own family, the only way to fit in is to fit — no rough edges, nothing to make you stand out, no unusual traits. And if you’re the member of a minority group? Well, may the gods of uniformity help you then. The small-minded gossip of the town regularly calls out the ethnic minorities, the eccentrics, and the generally suspect, and there is no mercy when it comes to the rumor mill and the shunning and humiliations that can result.

Astrid, at age 17, mostly keeps her head down and gets by. She hides a vital secret for her two best friends, Kristina and Justin, the high school’s golden couple, but Astrid has a major secret of her own. On the weekends at her part-time job, Astrid’s friendship with Dee has moved from casual comfort to hot-and-heavy make-out sessions, and Astrid likes it quite a bit. But is she gay? She’s not sure, and she’s tired of all the pressure — pressure from her parents to fit in, pressure from Dee to take a stand and come out, pressure from the high school in-crowd to just be normal, have a boyfriend, and not be so weird.

To clear her head, Astrid has the unusual habit of going out into her backyard, lying down on the picnic table, and watching the airplanes fly overhead. As each one passes, Astrid focuses on sending her love to the passengers — not just to say hi, but to send her own love away from her to a place where it might be safe. Astrid can’t share anything with her controlling parents or her too-perfect sister; she can’t open up to her best friend; and she can’t share her doubts and confusion with Dee without Dee taking it as a statement on their relationship. So Astrid sends her love to the passengers overhead, the only people she can love freely and without consequence, and for a while, it helps her.

The rest of the time, the table just sits here with nothing to do. So I lie on it and I look at the sky. I see shapes in the clouds by day and shooting stars by night. And I send love to the passengers inside the airplanes… [But] it feels good to love a thing and not expect anything back. It feels good to not get an argument or any pushiness or any rumors or any bullshit. It’s love without strings. It’s ideal.

Astrid gets by for a while, but things do reach a crisis point eventually, and finally Astrid is pushed far enough that she has to take big risks and take a stand. When she blows up, she does so rather spectacularly, and it’s particularly wonderful to see the fall-out of her explosion.

Ask the Passengers is a quick-paced story, told in the first-person from Astrid’s perspective, so that we see inside her thoughts and fears, and really get a chance to see a smart girl try to take control of her life and at the same time do the right thing. Astrid is willing to come out when it feels right — but how does she know if she’s really gay? Maybe she doesn’t like girls in general, just Dee? And if she’s not sure, is it cowardice to remain hidden, or is it bravery to be committed to speaking nothing but the truth? Is the pressure from Dee to come out any different from the pressure from Astrid’s family to be “normal”? There are some important questions asked here about tolerance and acceptance. At one point, the high school has a mandatory Tolerance Day, complete with pep rally and inspirational speakers — but the day is so clearly aimed at Astrid and her friends that it really just serves to isolate them even more.

Interspersed throughout Astrid’s tale is snippets from different airplane flights. As Astrid sends her love to the passengers overhead, we get small segments throughout the book of different passengers on different planes, who make life-changing decisions, face up to hard truths, or simply find some inner strength to face their problems. The implication is that Astrid’s love has reached them and affected them in some way. Magical thinking, perhaps, but it’s a nice idea — or perhaps it’s only coincidence, and the magic is simply in drawing lines from one person in crisis to another, so that the author is showing the reader that none of us are alone, that everyone has risks to take and decisions to make, and that owning up to our own thoughts and feelings may be the bravest step a person can take.

I had not heard of Ask the Passengers until last week, when it was announced that this book was the winner of the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. A well-deserved piece of recognition, in my opinion. Ask the Passengers is an important book that doesn’t feel preachy, with valuable messages for teens struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in — and an important lesson as well for the adults in teens’ lives about the incalculable value of support and love without judgement or conditions.