I realise that I've let my blog slip into disuse in the last year or so, it was the typical story of too much vying for my attention and, sadly, the inessential being trimmed.
This weekend gone I read Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan and suddenly, even if only for this one book, blogging became essential. I don't even know if anyone reads this long dead blog, but that's not what's important here. I need to write about this book regardless of how many people happen to stumble upon this dark corner of the internet.
Each book is a story, obviously, but I'm also strong in the belief that the reading of each book is a story in itself. True, not always an interesting one, but there's always something that led us to chose that particular book at that particular time. If you want to skip to the review of the book itself, I understand. Jump down to where it starts... It's the most important part anyway. I think I've rambled a bit. But, my blog, my rules.
My 'Two Boys Kissing' story starts long before it was even published, not that I knew it. The last 3 years I've been working towards my Masters in Children's literature, and towards the beginning of last year I made an important decision: What to do for my thesis. I'd tossed around a couple of ideas, a research paper analysing Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking Series, or an exploration of gay teen YA, a few other ideas, but what I really wanted to do was write a novel. So I decided to do a creative work: write and submit a novel along with an exegesis about it. So, I stopped writing the steampunk fantasy bizzo that I was working on, and undertook the book I've always known I've had in me. I'll leave the details about that for another time, but I should say that it is a gay teen YA novel.
I got to writing...
One thing I often hear authors say is that while they were writing any given novel, they read widely, but stayed well away from the same genre as what they were writing. I've had editor friends give me the same advice directly. So, for nearly 18 months, all books with a gay YA theme were hands off. This has been difficult, as, through my studies I've become aware of more books than I ever knew existed. Not only that, but then David Levithan (by all accounts among booksellers the go-to-guy of gay YA) releases a book proudly called Two Boys Kissing with a cover that reinforced its subject matter unapologetically. Further, people who's opinion I trust and are usually aligned with asked me regularly if I had read it yet, because it's so good.
But, alas, I was still only halfway through my own novel and was abstaining.
Then (let's skip forward 6 months) I finally finished my novel (enough for uni, at least). Yet, I still have my exegesis to write before I can hand it in. AND because an academic discussion of a novel isn't really complete without comparing it to others in the genre, I found that the long list of gay YA novels of which I'd been taking note, had to be read all of a sudden in order to be analysed.
Now I know my own book isn't completely polished, and I probably should have held off until I knew it was done and dusted, but uni called for it. Who was I to argue?
So, letting go, I succumbed to the inner urge I'd been denying for months and finally started reading the books I wanted to. The first cab off the rank was one called 'The Boy's Own Manual To Being A Proper Jew' by Eli Glasman. It's not out until July, but a friend scored me an advanced proof because she knew the subject matter of thesis. I won't go on about it, other to say I read it in one sitting and it's great! Definitely look it up.
Then, I reached for my copy of Two Boys Kissing. I'd bought it when it came out, knowing that I had to own it, regardless. (My only grief now is that I will have to buy it again in HB, as you'll find out why)
So then... My Review...
I have to admit that when I began reading I was really worried I'd find the whole thing a bit pretentious. It's not, but I want to say this upfront for those of you who start it and think the same thing and wonder if you should give up. Do not give up. Press on (if indeed you need to be pressed). The reason for my reaction is that the narrator is a collective 'we' made up of the generation of gay men who lived (and died) through the height of the AIDS epidemic. I quickly learned that this is a very effective narrative device. It powerfully brings to light what often remains unspoken or even unknown about their suffering, without the book being about their suffering.
Instead, we follow an assortment of gay teenage boys each trying to find their way through varied levels of acceptance from their families, their friends and their communities. The main story that ties most of them together is that of Craig and Harry who are attempting to break the world record for the longest kiss. They see this as a form of advocacy in light of the recent homophobic assault that put one of their classmates in hospital. This, essentially, is the two boys kissing of the title. Yet, as we also follow Peter and Neil who have been dating for a year, and Avery and Ryan who have only just met and feel those first stirrings of something special, we realise that there are many types of kisses, many types of relationships. There is more, but I'm sure other reviews and blurbs will fill you in. Really, it's even better going into it knowing as little as possible.
I was so utterly moved by this book. Those who know me well will know that I rarely cry (I mean actually cry) in books and films. Sure, I can get teary, sure I get emotionally invested, but actual tears come so infrequently that I can be quite astounded by the books that do manage to get me weeping.
I was crying all the way through this book.
Tears of joy; tears from hard personal memories; tears from sweet personal memories; tears of shared pain in what others have gone through; but, most frequently, pure tears of hope that things are changing, and things can change; get better. That we are moving in the right direction. One particular character brought on these tears of hope more than any other, and he only exists in only 3 paragraphs. I just re-read those paragraphs as I write this, and cried again. He is Max, and I'll let you find him for yourself. (Thank you, David Levithan, for Max).
I finished this book (in fact, it was well before I finished) and knew that it was perhaps one of the most special and important books I had read. I found myself sad that it had not been written 15 years ago so that I could have read it as a teenager and maybe had a much happier time of it. I found myself happy that such a book existed and was now available for anyone to read. Which they should. Anyone. While it is truly a spectacular work of fiction that practically any gay teen in the western world will most likely connect with, it is also one that offers so much insight into what has gone before, and how much further we have to go, and we will never get there if it is only gay teens reading this book. This is a book for everyone. I will try not to get carried away and say that to disregard this book because of its themes is to wantonly perpetuate closed-minded bigotry, but that is how I feel.
If someone had told me that they were attempting to write a novel that encapsulates so much of the joint experiences of multiple generations of gay men, I would have told them that it could not be done. David Levithan has proved me wrong, and I am so happy for it.
So go out and share it. Share it with your partners, your boyfriends and girlfriends. Share it with your teenage children or nieces and nephews. Share it with your parents, with your friends. Because if this book has even a fraction of the power that I feel it has, it will only be realised by people sharing it.
(Can I give it more?)
Find it on Goodreads