“I am somewhere else now. I exist only inside my own anxiety, imagining what my mother will say if she finds out who I am. But the violence around me pulls me back to this moment.”
For about a year now, I’ve been met with the growing suspicion that I’m starting to outgrow most of the YA genre. For some reason, I once believed that I would never outgrow YA because most of the titles I picked to read always resonated so profoundly with me (but then again, I also once believed that I would never outgrow anything, which just isn’t realistic). I also know there’s a stigma around adults reading YA books since they are not the targeted age category, and I do not intend to imply that only YA is only suitable for sixteen-year-olds. Read whatever you want, no matter how old you are. But for me, I can no longer shake the feeling that YA isn’t really the genre for me anymore. Even when a new title comes out that sounds different or groundbreaking, I can barely get through any of them without silently saying to myself, “Okay, calm down, you’re sixteen. Wait until you get real problems.” I guess I’m just in a different space now that I’m in my twenties and now that I’ve been able to let go of a lot of the different anxieties associated with youth. That being said, I still can’t help myself when I come across a new YA title on Goodreads that sounds like something I will love. I’m just more inclined to request it from the library now rather than spending money on it (read my essay for Book Riot about why you owe it to yourself to abandon books you’re not enjoying for more on that!)
In New York City in 1989, the world is complicated place for three teenagers. Iranian immigrant Reza knows he’s gay, but is deeply conflicted by his cultural values and images in the media of gay men dying from AIDS. Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who doesn’t fit in anywhere except with her Uncle Stephen, who is sick. And Art, Judy’s best friend, is their school’s only out and proud teen who rebels against his conservative parents and attempts to capture the AIDS crisis through his photographs. Like a Love Story brings these three lost souls together in a story that celebrates activism, loving who you are, and dancing to Madonna.
I really loved how Like a Love Story focuses on the AIDS crisis and I appreciate how a number of reviews have called it a groundbreaking and masterful portrayal of something we still struggle to find the language to talk about over thirty years later. It doesn’t personally rank as my favorite YA book to tackle AIDS (that would certainly be Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home), but I’m still happy to have found another open and honest portrayal of the realities of the crisis in the YA genre. Above all I appreciate how personal this story feels for the author, as you can tell in a number of queer YA novels written by men (such as Angelo Surmelis’ The Dangerous Art of Blending In). I especially appreciated how such a personal and honest narrative was written by a queer man of color, considering that right before reading Like a Love Story I read Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes, another queer YA novel that was problematic in its attempts to tackle homophobia, which was written by a straight, cis white woman. It was definitely refreshing to have topics such as AIDS, homophobia, racism, and cultural values written about by someone who has most likely experienced such things in real life. The author writes in such a palatable, straightforward way that still gives space for all the feelings that come with loss and love.
What I loved most about Like a Love Story was how it’s exactly that – a love story, and a queer love story. The romance between Reza and Art didn’t feel too forced or rushed like the majority of queer romances between boys in YA, and their love was ignited by a passion for activism, a love of art, and a love of love. It was also wonderful to read the perspective of a queer boy of color attempting to come to terms with his sexuality, based on his cultural values and the homophobic beliefs instilled in him by nature, as well as his coming out process. Another thing I loved about Like a Love Story was how it really reminded me of my love for Madonna? I say that as if it were something that is easily forgotten, but I often forget the impact that Madonna had in the ’80s, especially in the LGBTQ community. Everything about her, her music, and her image was so inspiring and empowering for queer people then and now, and it made me grateful for the fact that I got to grow up to a lot of her music and that I got to start the process of finding myself and loving myself through her music. I actually went and listened to The Immaculate Collection after finishing this book, and danced my little heart out.
The only thing I didn’t really like about Like a Love Story – and I can’t really tell if this was a legitimate flaw or just me being snobby because I’ve outgrown most of YA – was Judy. I just found her to be really annoying and unlikable. I appreciated the perspective and representation of an unapologetically fat girl in a queer love story, but the chapters told from her perspective really pissed me off and brought down the party. I loved her Uncle Stephen and the short anecdotes told from his perspective, but I hated Judy. Maybe it’s just me. But I probably would have enjoyed the book more as a whole if she wasn’t in it. Then again, would it really have been a love story set in the ’80s if a boy coming out as gay to his fake girlfriend didn’t cause the girlfriend to become a melodramatic bitch who makes someone’s coming out process all about them? I’m doubtful, honestly. Overall, definitely a new LGBTQ entry to the YA genre that is not to be missed. It’s titles like these that make me not want to leave the genre behind forever. 4/5 stars.