For my first post of LGBT Pride Month, I’m reading a gay romance novel that caught my eye while looking in a bookstore. The cover seemed nice, but the idea behind the book and the possibilities of it really caught my attention. I’ve heard of a few people say that they do not enjoy gay literature because according to them it’s the same old awkward romance you see in regular love stories. While it can be true in some cases, I have to disagree. Typically a gay romance doesn’t always have to have the romance as its focus, such as “Willful Machines” (which I reviewed a while ago). Much like zombie stories or horror films, a gay romance can be good with different variety and good characters, as well as an interesting story. And “Openly Straight” by Bill Konigsberg is one of these stories.
So what’s the novel about? A teenage boy nicknamed Rafe is a gay student who is interested in soccer, loves to write (like yours truly), and is going to an all-boys boarding school in New England. Although some gay students would see this as a nightmare, Rafe is actually eager. He’s yearning to hide his sexuality not because he’s ashamed of himself, but for a new opportunity of being seen as an average teenage boy and not ‘the gay kid’.
However, the universe has other plans as Rafe meets Ben, another (closeted?) student like him who’s trying to understand himself and who he is as a person. As their friendship frowns beyond a typical bromance and into something more, our main character must make a choice of coming out (again) in order to be with his potential boyfriend or keeping up a facade he only wants to keep to fit in.
I love how unlike other LGBT novels that talk about coming of age, this book takes a different and opposite approach. Rafe tells the reader that his parents are so liberal they’d make a Bernie Sanders supporter blush, and that for so long he’s felt less accepted as gay and an average guy and more /acknowledged/ as the latter.
What do I mean by that? Well, remember how you grew up in middle/high school and your classmates labeled you as one thing when you had in fact multiple characteristics? You were an athlete and therefore you weren’t into drama club? Or you were good with computers and therefore couldn’t handle weightlifting? Or maybe you were a cheerleader and therefore did not enjoy reading books in a quiet library? That is basically Rafe’s dilemma, and it is translated beautifully enough for anyone (gay or straight) to relate to in some way or another.
However that doesn’t make him or his parents right either. Rafe wants to become the average teenager again instead of the token gay student at his high school and in his parent’s eyes, and unknowingly begins to dislike his sexuality and use it as a barrier when in fact he’s created another barrier. And on the other end of the coin, Rafe’s parents spend less time letting him live as a regular teen and more about putting him in a bubble of zero tolerance and going to GSAs. He’s basically mad that his community sees him more as an archetype than a person to hang with.
Still not following? Well, here’s a quote from the book to shorten it:
“It was like, I’m so special, my feelings are so special. I wanted to get my feelings hurt sometimes and not have Mommy come to school.”
Even without this philosophy, the characters in this are just wonderful, especially our main character Rafe. When he isn’t pretending to be something he’s not, this young man gives every page this mellow charisma, and tells us who he is just from the narrative. We understand his frustration towards wanting to be normal, and yet enjoy how he has fun being a normal teenager in a normal all-boy’s school without having to worry about appearances. He’s just this joking and easy-going guy with a selfish side we relate to.
Another wonderful thing to notice in “Openly Straight” is the sheer personality given to the setting and each character. Almost everyone is either going something strange or minding their own business while making good/bad jokes. When it comes to love interests, Ben is a very intellectual and soft-spoken guy for being in sports. I would’ve loved to dive more into how he and his conservative parents work, but that’s not the focus here anyway.
As for the side characters, they also light the novel up amid quirky, comedic drama. Rafe’s roommates are just adorkable, the jocks are tough as melted nails, Mr. Scarborough is a quirky literary genius, Rafe’s BFF Claire Olivia is undeniably eccentric, and Rafe’s family is as batshit insane as the characters of FLCL. And I frigging love it! 😀
However the author doesn’t shy away from writing in touching, heartfelt and even tragic moments that leave your body aching for more pages to read. It has been a very long time since I’ve read another novel that has made me wanna cry before, and it feels like every sad, happy, angry, and heartfelt moment in “Openly Straight” is earned.
If I had to find something to dislike about this novel overall, it would have to be that, while the idea and execution is mostly wonderful, it really irks me that all this would eventually lead to the whole ‘liar revealed’ trope common in some romances. Much like Doug Walker on YouTube, I’m not too fond if this either since a relationship is usually about learning each other’s secrets and “Openly Straight”, much like other romantic comedies, slightly weakens its ending with this. However, to this book’s credit, it doesn’t fully go the route you think it does, and without giving anything away, let’s just say Bill Konigsberg leaves you both somewhat happy yet yearning for a sequel. I’ve looked and he’s said this is the first book in a series, and I will be very happy with another book to continue this story please! 😀
It even doesn’t help that the friendship/romance between Rafe and Ben is genuine to the point of the reader feeling every emotion they feel. They’re as adorable as you can imagine, and can either see this as a book of genuine friendship or romance.
There’s a quote mentioned in this book said by E. L. Doctorow, a famous American author, that probably sums up not just writing but life overall. I won’t tell what it is but let’s just say it is something that will leave you thinking after finishing this novel.
Dripping with precious companionship and blurring the lines of what defines sexuality and personality, Bill Konigsberg gives us a novel that left me feeling happy and empty inside after staying up and reading “Openly Straight”. In fact, this book is now a personal favorite of mine in the gay literature section. It is that good!
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