Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review - Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

A funny, honest novel about being out, being proud . . . and being ready for something else.

Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He's won skiing prizes. He likes to write.

And, oh yeah, he's gay. He's been out since 8th grade, and he isn't teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that's important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.

So when he transfers to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret -- not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn't even know that love is possible.

This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate being different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.

336 Pages
Arthur A. Levine Books
4/5 Stars

I’ve been reading a fair share of books with LGBT characters lately, and with the exception of Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone, Gone, Gone, they’ve all focused too strongly on their characters’ sexual orientation to actually make them seem real.  It’s like these authors feel like they have to shove in our faces that they’re writing a GAY BOOK, and it’s just like…no.  Stop it.  I don’t live every day of my life obsessing over the fact that I’m straight, my identity is not attached to the genitalia I’m attracted to, and it’s no different for gay people.  Openly Straight understands this and gives us a wonderfully fun -- and surprisingly deep -- reading experience.

Rafe is openly gay.  He has been for years, and when he came out of the closet, he did so to celebration and fanfare, not disgust and disdain.  He participates in GSA and PFLAG events, and even travels to other schools to discuss acceptance, both of other gay people and of yourself.  And yet, despite the fact that he’s never had one of those horror stories other gay kids have nightmares about, he’s tired of the label attached to him like a tattoo etched onto his forehead.  So he enrolls in a private all-boys school and decides to rediscover and reintroduce himself as Rafe the boy, not Rafe the resident gay kid.  While there, he learns how much he likes living label-free – and later, how hard it really is to keep such a large part of who he is hidden from everyone around him.

To put it simply, I loved this book.  It’s filled with great, realistic characters and awesome dialogue.  I laughed and cried, and felt for the very first time like I understood just a little bit what it’s like to be a homosexual in a mostly straight world.  Rafe is a fun character, and his thoughts and revelations always feel natural, never forced.  He’s got real flaws, but I felt like we’d be fast friends if I met him in real life.  My biggest concern before starting this one was that the reason for Rafe’s “reinvention”, as it were, would feel weak and plot-devicey, but it didn’t.  I totally and completely understood where he was coming from, and felt for him when he got frustrated over his parents’ and best friend’s utter inability to get it.  His internal comments on straight people’s reactions, even the most open-minded ones, struck an uneasy chord within me and made me reevaluate how I react to that news when I hear it myself.  Do I make too big of a deal about not making a big deal about it?  Do I start seeing that person as “my gay friend” instead of just my friend?  Openly Straight makes you think, and it opens your mind to the reality that it is, in fact, easier to be straight.  There are so many things we take for granted, things we don’t even think about.  Things this book did an incredible job of shining a light on through the eyes of its protagonist.

In addition to its excellent handling of the LGBT theme, this book also features some of my favorite YA relationships ever.  Rafe’s English teacher Mr. Scarborough is just plain awesome, and his tutoring and quiet mentoring add so much to the novel.  It’s a toss-up between which I found more satisfying; Rafe’s relationship with Mr. Scarborough, or with philosophical jock, Ben.  Though there are some issues I had with the latter one that I can’t get into without giving away the ending, there is a very strong love story told in these pages that paints a picture of heterosexuality and homosexuality that is much less black and white than many of us would like to believe.  It doesn’t shy away from the unease, the painful questioning, or the heartache of hiding something so fundamental to who you are from someone you’re falling in love with.  It doesn’t claim that love conquers all, and points out that it’s often confusing and at times inconvenient.  It’s real, ugly and beautiful at the same time, and it left me in tears.

Though I wish I could say that I loved this book with every piece of my heart, I do have to acknowledge that there were some things about it that didn’t thrill me.  Most notably, the ending left me rather unsatisfied and sure my e-copy was missing some pages.  The resolution left a lot to be desired, and though I do know that Konigsberg was going for an intentionally unresolved ending in an effort to feel more realistic and open-ended, I feel that he missed the mark somewhat.  I just wanted something a little more powerful, something to make the rest of the novel hit home and leave me in a stupor of thought for that first hour after finishing.  Though there were nuggets of this, it just wasn’t enough.  Some of Rafe’s revelations felt a bit abrupt.  Because of that, I can’t give this a full five-star rating.
Still, Openly Straight is a highly, highly recommended novel that has earned a spot as one of my favorite reads of 2013 so far.  I will definitely be putting Bill Konigsberg on my list of authors to keep an eye on.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this delightful review, Kelly! I am so glad you enjoyed the book.


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