Instead of a cruise-related post today, here’s a book review, originally published in Bay Windows (July 12, 2007). More cruise thoughts and a wrap-up to follow. . . .
Carrie Jones’ debut young adult novel, Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend, may at first seem an odd choice for review here. It is not a story about having LGBT parents, nor about being LGBT per se. The protagonist is straight high school student Belle, whose long-term boyfriend Dylan has just come out. Tips explores the broader ramifications of homophobia and closetedness without resorting to stereotypes, however, and if it finds its way into the hands of more teens, LGBT and not, that will be a good thing for all families.
Jones has a knack for storytelling, an ear for unadorned dialogue, and a respect for the ups and downs of adolescent life. Although much of the book is about the characters working through layers of deception and hurt, Jones manages to imbue it with humor: “2) Do not call yourself a fag hag,” writes Belle in the book’s eponymous list of tips, “as this is a derogatory term that conjures up Paris Hilton impersonators. . . 5) Think about being a lesbian. 6) Reject the whole lesbian idea when even the concept of kissing super-beautiful Angelina Jolie doesn’t make you hot. 7) Wonder how you could have had such good sex so many times with a gay seventeen-year-old guy. 8) Cry.”
Jones thankfully steers clear of clichés about the coming out process. There is no long monologue about “what it means to be gay,” or similar television-special scenes. Belle is a folk-singing member of her school’s Amnesty International club, a progressive for whom being gay is just fine-almost too fine: “In some weird, selfish way, I wish Dylan had cheated on me with a girl,” she says. “That would make things easier. I could hate her. . . . But, no. . . . I can’t be angry about someone being gay, can I?” She can’t-but nor can she ignore the deceit: “I’m afraid . . . that you never loved me, that it was all one big fat, horrible, heart-breaking, ego-shattering lie.” Belle grapples with this tension during the course of the book-her inability to be mad at who Dylan is, while being furious that he tried to hide it through an intimate relationship.
Belle is fully aware that homophobia exists, though, and this makes it even harder to have a gay ex-boyfriend. “I am so mad at you and at the same time, I’m so worried about you,” she says. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you, to be gay in a world where gay is dangerous. . . . It’s a world where gay means you can die because you’ve loved. You’re in that world now, Dylan. You’re in that world and I’m not.”
These two worlds are not wholly separate, however. Jones deftly shows that homophobia is not so different from all the other hate our society has known: “Do you know what a faggot is?” Belle asks Dylan in her mind, after a fellow student uses the slur. “It’s the bundle of wood they used to burn gay men with during medieval times. . .” Belle, who has epilepsy, continues “They used to burn people with seizures, too, said the demon got to them. Some people just call us freaks. Maybe we were an appropriate couple after all. Five hundred years ago we’d have both died. . . from the hands of people in our lives. Burnt.”
At its heart, however, this is less a story about homophobia than personal discovery: Dylan coming out as gay Belle finding that the clues were there all along her own journey to learn who she really is, and her rediscovery of a relationship-on new terms-with Dylan. Jones casts a shrewd eye on how homophobia manifests itself, but makes the book more than just a tale of triumph over prejudice.
The characters have quirky habits that keep the story from bogging down in self-reflection. Tom, the soccer jock, likes to make sculptures out of duct tape. Emily, Belle’s best friend, lost her father to cancer and now takes photos incessantly, trying to capture memories in case of further loss. These are not mere tics, but add texture to already well drawn personalities. We can relate to them without feeling as if we’ve read their exact stories before.
Jones captures the spirit of adolescent life without condescension, making this a young adult novel that both teens and adults can enjoy. The last chapter, which I won’t spoil for you, is to my mind a tad corny, but that’s a minor fault and perhaps viewed otherwise by those in the target age range.
It is an introspective novel, and while it has moments of dramatic tension and physical danger, those looking for a tale of action and adventure had best look elsewhere. As a chronicle of self-discovery and the power of love, however, it will win many fans. Read it and enjoy, then get your local library and high school to stock it. It may help open hearts and minds in a way that mandatory diversity seminars can’t. More than that, though, it’s also just an insightful, funny read about first love and first heartbreak. All of us, gay, straight, bi, and questioning, can relate to that.