Book Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
The 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.
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!