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Two Boys Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan
Alfred A. Knopf. August 2013
Reviewed from ARC

Sometimes a book packs such an emotional whammy that every other aspect becomes irrelevant to 99.9% of the readers.

Two Boys Kissing is seriously packing.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I just read this for the first time last week. I’ve been poking back through some passages, but this is a one-read review, and I fully recognize that I’m not doing my due diligence if I’m meant to be imitating RealCommittee levels of close reading.

That said, RealCommittee nominations are often based on one reading, and I’d fully expect a nomination for this one if I were on the RealCommittee this year. I’m still debating whether I’d be the one to push that nomination forward; I was very deeply affected emotionally, but I’m still thinking about whether the novel as a whole hangs together, and I suspect it doesn’t.

Nowhere in the criteria is emotional impact explicitly stated, although there may be an implication in “theme.” And emotional response is hard to examine; the heart books aren’t always the best written and the best written books are sometimes cold fish, all of which is often obscured in the subjective emotional response. Still, when a book really hits the emotional core for readers — for a wide range of readers — it’s worth looking at it closely to see how that was done. Sometimes the alchemy of writing means we can’t exactly parse the how, but the fact that it does work should probably be one tick on the quality writing Bingo sheet that is the criteria.

Two Boys Kissing choked me up repeatedly. I’m wondering how much of that is generational and how much is historical and how much is the writing.

I did not find myself particularly engrossed in most of the now boys — Craig and Harry and their kiss, Neil and Peter and their settled relationship that is still a teen relationship; Avery and Ryan and their too-good-to-be-true blossoming romance; and poor Tariq and even poorer Cooper, who are alone and lonely — they are too perfectly scattered across the spectrum of race, personality, and hair color to come across as fully developed people. They are archetypes, almost, of gay teens. Too many characters, all sketched in with only light pencil lines; they represent far more than they are. It’s hard to be touched by an archetype, who by definition can’t be too specific. And yet they aren’t entirely effective as types because of the wealth of detail and the moments that seem engineered to make them individuals.

The true emotional core here is the narrative collective (and again we have a serious contender for best voice of 2013). The chorus of dead men, felled by AIDS and watching, hoping, loving from beyond are a magnificent construct. Their sorrow for the lives left behind, the lives unlived, is palpable and powerful. But then, of course it is; I was young in the 80s, but not so young that I was completely untouched, nor so young that I don’t have friends for whom AIDS was a too-constant companion. So am I crying for the history and the fact, or for the voice that evokes that pain? And is the emotion embedded in my own baggage and knowledge, and if so, will it come through for younger readers?

(This all dances around the “what makes this YA” question, and I do think this has huge crossover appeal for an adult readership and might even be better received by that readership, although it’s impossible to know at this point.)

I hope so, but I don’t know; the narrative voice might come across as boring old men to a younger reader, the explicit audience being addressed.

But then I look at some of the passages I’ve marked and I almost don’t care about those concerns because the writing, when it soars, is incandescent. The chorus captures so perfectly the magic of first love, the confusion of adolescence, and — more than anything — how absolutely amazing it is for those of us who are older to see how much better it is now. I too marvel at Max: “He will never have to come out because he will never have been kept in.”

At it’s best, the joint authorial voice has a timeless everyman element. Like the now boys, the chorus seems to want to hit on every possibility (“We are rarely unanimous about anything. Some of us loved. Some of us couldn’t. Some of us were loved. Some of us weren’t. Some of us never understood what the fuss was about”). But because there are no specifics, no attempts (generally) to make the chorus into a chorus of individuals, the effect is powerful and notable; the group voice is rare (The Virgin Suicides is the closest I can think of), and yet manages to be completely familiar and somehow real. Which is not to say it never falters; when Tom (the teacher) is mentioned, for example, the conceit stumbles. If they are everyman, how can they know Tom? If the chorus is made of individuals, how can they all know him?

Despite my reservations (and I’m not even listing all of them — Smita who will probably grow up to be a doctor triggered my stereotype alert, and she wasn’t alone, and the plot, such as it is, is made of tissue paper), I ended up all-in as I read Two Boys Kissing, and finished it wanting to hand it off to everyone. I absolutely see how this made the NBA longlist: it’s a powerful, important book and one that elicits genuine emotional response from every reader I’ve spoken to.*

(*all adult readers at this point, although I’m hoping to get this into teen hands soon)

Yet when I look at my reservations more closely, I wonder whether this one has even a shot at going from (presumed) nomination to final five. It’s got style in spades, and a voice worth gushing over even if it sometimes stumbles. It’s got a good shot at being a favorite of the year, and even at being a book that lasts. But it’s more meditation than novel in so many ways. I want to reread many passages, but I don’t feel moved to reread the novel, because the great passages are what carry the slight story, and that’s just not enough. I want everyone to read it because it should be read, but that’s about the message, and that’s not enough either.

Or rather, it’s plenty. Just not, sadly, the right plenty for the Printz.

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