posted at Monday, February 22nd, 2016 at 8:00 AM | Reviews, Young Adult
Series: Openly Straight #1
Published by Arthur A. Levine on May 28, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Amazon • The Book Depository
The award-winning novel about being out, being proud, and being ready for something else . . . now in paperback.
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 break 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 feeling different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.
Most of the time, I’m pretty good about putting my book down and getting to sleep at a reasonable hour so I can get plenty of sleep when I know I have to go to work the next day. I stayed up until 1 finishing Openly Straight. Starting at about 11:30, I kept telling myself that I needed to find a stopping point. To which I responded to myself “just one more chapter,” until all of a sudden I’d finished the book and it was 1. Oops. Openly Straight is everything that I was in the mood for and super good besides: a fluffy, shippy, feelsy lgbtq+ read that didn’t fall back on the typical plots.
Very often, fluffier contemporaries with lgbt main characters (and the darker contemporaries) center on coming out. Openly Straight looks directly at this trope by doing something different. In Openly Straight, Rafe doesn’t go back into the closet, but he decides that he doesn’t want to be openly gay anymore; there’s a distinction there, sort of.
Rafe does this because he’s sick of the label. He’s sick of being “the gay guy,” of his gayness being his defining characteristic in other people’s eyes. Rafe isn’t ashamed of being gay, he doesn’t wish he were straight, and he received tolerance in his open-minded hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Even so, he found being openly gay exhausting, frustrating, and confining. Sure, everyone tolerated him, but the fact that he was gay still changed the way that others treated him. For some, the fact that they knew Rafe was gay made them put a bit of safe distance around him; they weren’t rude exactly, but he was always treated differently. For others, like Rafe’s supportive parents, they made a HUGE deal about it, in a loving way, but still it made it seem like being gay was this massive thing and not just a way of being. No one makes a big deal about someone’s straightness; this, too, othered him and defined him, first and foremost, by his sexuality.
Rafe’s parents are a delight. They’re funny and awkward and oh so embarrassing, and, though they’re nothing like my parents, they still reminded me of them. His parents are hippies, very open-minded and very open in general. When Rafe came out to them, they were thrilled; his mom immediately joined PFLAG and soon became president of the local chapter. What I love most about their relationship is all of the love between them and that, despite the fact that they’re one hundred percent supportive of Rafe, they don’t always get him or do the right thing. The parent-child relationship just felt so completely realistic. I especially loved the little details, like how his dad would unashamedly get up and dance in public or karaoke rap songs.
Rafe enrolls in a boarding school across the country in Massachusetts in a bid to reinvent himself without the label. To be clear, he’s not trying to escape being gay, just being judged (whether positively or negatively) solely based on the fact that he’s into boys. Coming out, to him, wasn’t actually a big deal; he knew he would be accepted by his family and the people he knew, and he was. What he didn’t expect was all the little ways his life would change, how the label would totally overtake everything else about him, all those little microaggressions even from supportive people. It wasn’t coming out that was hard; it was being out. He wanted to escape, to try life without a label, or with a different label.
When Rafe arrives at Natick, his new all male boarding school, he immediately befriends the jocks. Rafe’s not an outstanding athlete, but he’s fast and gifted with decent natural athleticism. He’s on the soccer team, and he enjoys joining touch football and softball games. He loves the team spirit, being able to look other boys in the eye, and getting to take showers with his soccer team without the other guys being concerned he’s into them. By not telling anyone at Natick that he’s gay, he experiences a camaraderie with other boys that he’s never had before, experiences what it’s like not to have them all constantly on guard against potential advances.
However, obviously, the point of the book isn’t that coming out will ruin your life. Ultimately, there are good things about shedding the gay label, but it’s also not healthy not to be true to who you really are. Konigsberg tackles all of this in a really emotional way. Rafe is really gifted at lying to himself most of all, and, through the pushing of his creative writing teacher, he slowly opens up and is honest with himself. I loved those sections, watching his writing change and get more emotionally honest.
In addition to tackling coming out and being out, Openly Straight also nods to the gay best friend trope. Being away from his best friend Claire Olivia leads Rafe to realize some things about their friendship. They, without realizing it, had a relationship sort of like those terrible YAs with the token gay best friend; Claire Olivia’s stories took precedent. They have a real bond, though, and the evolution of their relationship is really touching and convincingly done. I love when bookish friendships go through rough patches and the characters work through them. Neither friendships nor romances will have only good days; the good relationships will come back stronger after the fights.
The friendships Rafe forms at Natick are amazing too. Obviously there’s Ben, and I’m still too emotional to talk about that one, but dear god do I ship it so hard and I need the sequel IMMEDIATELY; I have regrets about reading Openly Straight before the sequel was out but whatever.
Rafe learns a lot from that friendship, but, in some ways, he’s changed just as much by his friends Albie and Toby, school weirdos. Albie and Toby embrace who they are totally, even though it makes them uncool, and Rafe comes to really admire and learn from that. Rafe finally standing up for someone getting bullied towards the end, even though it risks his social status, had me cheering. Such a great character arc.
On top of all of that, the voice is also just excellent. Everyone was so well-characterized, and there were all of these details that made the school life feel real. I mean, I loved the incredibly silly drinking games everyone had, the cool kids and the dorky ones too.
Openly Straight is truly wonderful. If you loved Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, you’ll most likely love this book too. You might want to wait until Honestly Ben comes out, but you definitely want to read this one.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where no one thought being gay was even something to ride someone about?
Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy: