I really only have two complaints. I had such a good time reading it, I put it on my wishlist immediately, and can see myself upping this to five stars in the future when maybe those complaints won’t matter as much to me.
This is a young adult coming of age romance between two boys. One (Tanner) is a bisexual eighteen-year old whose family moved to Provo, Utah when he was only fourteen, and even though he was out where he lived in California, he went back in the closet upon arriving, largely on the wishes of his mother, who used to be Mormon. The other (Sebastian) is a freshman at BYU, mentoring a writing seminar at a local high school that he attended the year before, when his fantasy novel was good enough to actually be bought by a publisher.
Ingredients: One closeted teenager well aware of his sexuality and attempting to write an entire book in four months + Another closeted teenager struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and his culture/religion, who wrote a very successful book in four months the year before + Instant Attraction + Genuine Compatibility + Sweetness + Angst = This Book.
I’m always going to like a cute love story, especially if you add some sort of meta element like fandom or writing or whatever, but what struck me so much about this one was how thoughtful it was, particularly about Sebastian and his relationship with his religion, and with his community. The book is overwhelmingly on the side of the gay teenagers being able to love who they love, but it also very purposefully doesn’t demonize Sebastian’s Mormon faith. Sebastian and Tanner (and Tanner and his parents, among others), have very considered discussions about a lot of gray areas, including why Sebastian’s religion was so important to him, and there were several moments where Tanner (who is our narrator) has these little insights into what it must be like for Sebastian, despite not having been raised religious, in an overwhelmingly supportive and communicative household. It also perfectly captures what it feels like to fall in love for the first time, the initial infatuation, and how it gradually turns into real love, but how new and wonderful it all feels.
My two complaints, which feel less important the further I get from actually reading the book, were that: a) Roman-à -clef novels annoy the hell out of me, but I think the longer I sit on it, what Tanner is doing isn’t roman-à-clef, but genuine autobiography (hence the title) in which he’s processing his own experiences and putting them back out into the world as art. And b) That I really, really think we should have seen Sebastian’s final confrontation with his parents. SPOILERS The whole book, you just feel so hard for this kid, and when he finally makes his decision and stands up to his parents, we don’t’ get to see it. We skip right from the realization to months later when he comes to find Tanner at UCLA, and we hear a much abbreviated version as he tells Tanner what happened END SPOILERS. It was very narratively unsatisfying for me.
The author’s note makes it clear, at least to me, why this novel felt so thoughtful. Both authors (Christina Lauren is a writing pair! I did not know that before reading this book) have experience, either personally or secondhand, dealing with how painful it can be for a queer religious teenager growing up in a religion that tells them they are broken or wrong. This seems a very admirable sentiment to me. I hadn’t read anything by Christina Lauren before, but I ordered Dating You/Hating You from my library pretty much as soon as I finished this, so I’m sure a second review of her work is imminent. I hope I like it as much as I liked this.