Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: YA Fiction
Reading time: Read entire book on a Saturday
Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.
But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.
It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.
I was a little worried about reading this book, for fear of it being too autobiographical (me being a gay Mormon and all), and I feared that the story would be shredded at the hands of non-Mormon outsiders who wouldn’t be able to capture the nuance of the choices a gay Mormon faces. It is very easily done, painting the Church as bigots, and I don’t have to read an entire book to read blanket condemnations of the Church; I’ll go to Twitter for that.
But I was curious, because this is the first book of its kind that I have found. A romance/bildungsroman centering around a gay Mormon. The book itself isn’t told from the perspective of a gay Mormon, but rather from a queer half-Jewish boy named Tanner who falls in love with his Mormon TA. To perhaps make the setting make more sense to those unfamiliar with all things Mormon, the author provides several passages explaining everything from garments to covenants to missions. And I appreciated how accurate they were. This wasn’t another Book of Mormon musical, where details that are just off give it the feel of a caricature rather than an honest attempt at capturing the difficulties of growing up Mormon. Some passages are really poignant too, as the narrator himself has to do away with some of his preconceived notions of Mormonism. For example, this passage when Tanner confronts his mom about her seeming in-born hatred of all things Mormon:
“How would I know what the LDS Church says about anything?” I ask, voice rising. “It’s not like you give us any level perspective on what they actually believe and how they function. All I know from you is they hate the gays, they hate women, they hate, they hate, they hate.”
Or when he reacts to his sister complaining about how happy Mormons are all the time:
“I’ll get to hang out with Lizzy tonight. I’ll tell her you said hi.”
Hailey wrinkles her nose.
I laugh, putting T-shirts back in drawers and hanging up the rest. “You’d be surprised to hear that they’re all like that.”
Hailey rolls onto her back and groans. “She’s always smiling and saying hi to everyone in the halls.”
“What a monster.”
“How can someone be that happy being Mormon?” In her words, for the first time, I hear our blind bias. “I’d want to punch myself.”
I haven’t spent any time with Lizzy, but I feel a prickle of protectiveness toward her anyway. “You sound like an ignorant dumbass.”
I was in this respect very grateful to the authors for their fairly respectful approach to faith, and acknowledging it as a key part of our identity. But when it came to Sebastian, I couldn’t agree all the time with the way his faith was portrayed. I couldn’t tell it was just Tanner’s perception, or whether it was just the storyline and the choices he made. But ultimately, even if it isn’t clearly written out, the Church is the impersonal bureaucratic behemoth lingering in the background. I know it can and does feel this way, and I still sympathize with the sentiment.
The romance part of the book does feel a little, I don’t know, fishy? I’ve never been the biggest fan of romances, because I feel that they take advantage of the reader’s emotions. I worked at a Barnes and Noble back in high school, and the romance section just seemed awful. I was tempted to label my review “Gay Twilight,” because the plot is basically the same: a forbidden love, but switch vampires for gay Mormons. Who we fall in love with is portrayed as destiny or fate. These messages are so ingrained into society, that you really can’t expect anything more nuanced in a teen romance novel, right?
While I the scenario is realistic, I thought it was unfair that Tanner’s parents are the coolest and most understanding parents ever, while Sebastian’s are portrayed as nearly automatons. The kid Mormons have character, but the adult Mormons are stereotypes. Listen to this amazing advice from Tanner’s dad:
“I’m not finished,” Dad says, voice gently stern. “I need you to promise me that you are taking care of your other relationships. That you are spending time with Autumn and Eric and Manny. That you are still being a role model for Hailey. That you are being an attentive and helpful son to your mother.” I nod. “I promise.” “The reason I say that is because it’s important you keep your life full, regardless of how deep your relationship with Sebastian becomes. This is independent of his religion. If it continues, and works out somehow, then you’ll want friends who accept and support you. And if, for whatever reason, it does not work out, you’ll need to have people you can turn to.”
Then read this from Sebastian’s mom:
“I don’t even know how we got here, Sebastian. This? What you’re going through?” She stabs the air with savagely curled finger quotes around the words “going through.” “This is your own doing. Heavenly Father is not responsible for your decisions. It is your free will alone that deprives you of happiness.” She picks up the wooden spoon, shoving it into the batter. “And if you think I’m being harsh, talk to your dad about it. You have no idea how much you’ve wounded him.”
Talk about the stalward Arminian. This is, of course, partly due to the fact that Tanner is the narrator, and we get to spend more time with his parents than Sebastian’s. And there are Mormon parents out there that really respond this way. It is a reality that should be written about. So while I perhaps wouldn’t have been able to write a story like this, I am grateful that it was written. I think this is a great addition to a much-needed conversation.