Title: Openly Straight (2013)
Series: Openly Straight – Book 1
Author: Bill Konigsberg
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT
Extent: 321 pages
Release Date: May 28, 2013
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.
How do I begin to review a book I have very, very mixed feelings about? I suppose we’ll start with a summary. Openly Straight is the story of Rafe, who moves to an all-boys boarding school far away from home because he is tired of being known as The Gay Guy. At this new school, he hangs out with people he wouldn’t normally hang out with, hides parts of himself, and essentially “reinvents” himself.
This book was supposed to be right up my alley, but unfortunately it really didn’t work for me. As just a fictional narrative, the plot was bland, the characters unremarkable and one-dimensional, and the pacing slow. As an exploration of labels and stereotypes, it was sadly also lacking — full of potential, yes, but ultimately unsatisfying, shallow, and somewhat unaware of itself.
“Straight people have it so much easier. They don’t understand. They can’t. There’s no such thing as openly straight.”
The story is told from Rafe’s first-person perspective and includes chapters of his essays for English class, along with feedback from his teacher. I understand that this was an attempt to give Rafe character and emotional development, but it was much more ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. I understand and sympathise with his internal conflict, but he just didn’t connect with me beyond that.
Now, I don’t have to like a main character to like a book, but I disliked Rafe quite a lot that it impacted my enjoyment of the book. He was tired of labels, but he easily labelled other people, though he used labels such as “jocks” and “nerds” instead of sexual orientation. He didn’t treat his friends that well, and he came across as very self-centred to me. None of the characters felt really real to me, and there were a couple of moments in the book that came across as a bit misogynistic too:
“It was like when you approach a woman whom you think is beautiful and you see the caked-on blush and mascara, and you realize what you are seeing isn’t her; it’s her vanity. You’re seeing her attempt at beauty, and it’s the opposite of beauty that you’re looking at.”
Yeah, I dunno. Some of the characters came across as vaguely racist or sexist too, and no one really called them out on it, which I think made for a huge missed opportunity. Perhaps that’s not the focus of the book and the author wanted to stay “on topic”… but I wish. I just wish.
Anyway. The messages in this book are of course “good” — accept yourself, be true to yourself, what people see doesn’t matter as much as what you see — but while I appreciate what the book tried to be, it didn’t work for me at all. Openly Straight has an interesting, ambitious premise, but it falls short in execution.