Title:Buy Link What They Always Tell Us
Author: Martin Wilson
Publisher: Delacorte/Random House
Amazon.com Buy Link
Genre: YA, contemporary gay fiction
Length: Novel (304 pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie
In a nutshell: More subtle and nuanced than the usual “coming-of-age” story, told in an unusual and effective way. Not to be missed!
James and Alex have barely anything in common anymore—least of all their experiences in high school, where James is a popular senior and Alex is suddenly an outcast. But at home, there is Henry, the precocious 10-year-old across the street, who eagerly befriends them both. And when Alex takes up running, there is James’s friend Nathen, who unites the brothers in moving and unexpected ways.
This book had been on my radar for quite a while—it was a Lambda Literary Award nominee in 2008 for Young Adult/Children’s Fiction—but I never got around to reading it. However, as I noted in my review of I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth The Trip, there were three essays at the end, one of which was written by Martin Wilson. That spurred me on to picking up What They Always Tell Us and I am glad I finally did.
As I suspect everyone who reads my reviews knows, young adult books are my guilty pleasure. I am always very happy when I find a new one that I can add to my permanent collection. What They Always Tell Us is definitely on that list.
The writing style is unique, unusual, and works very well for the story. It is written in the present tense, third person POV and alternates between Alex and James in each chapter. I read one review that suggested the POV and present tense were done to provide some distance; I felt the opposite—I was completely pulled into the story.
The story opens with an Alex chapter. It’s November and he’s at home alone and being a bit of a rebel: wearing his father’s ratty bathrobe and eating his cheeseburger and fries dinner off his mother’s best china—and not washing the dishes afterwards. LOL. This is what passes for rebellious for upper middle class kids in Tuscaloosa, Alabama! Alex is by himself because his parents are at a wedding in Nashville. His brother James, who was supposed to be his chaperone for the weekend is off at the La Quinta motel, having a (supposedly) grand old time with his current girlfriend, leaving Alex at home to fend for himself.
As we get to know Alex in that first chapter, we learn that he drank a bottle of Pine-Sol at a back-to-school party right after Labor Day. Was it a conscious suicide attempt or just an impulsive, stupid mistake? At the beginning of the book, it’s clear that Alex doesn’t know—coming to terms with what he did, and why, is a major theme of the story. How it’s handled though, is wonderful, and really shows the healing power of love.
I can hear the groans now. “Another gay suicide book?” Well, yes and no. Yes because there a suicide theme but no because Alex didn’t drink the Pine-Sol because of being gay, it was more just general all-purpose adolescent angst.
Within James’ chapters, there’s also a healthy dose of adolescent angst which I wasn’t expecting. After all, James is popular, smart, and athletic, with a steady stream of girlfriends and a posse of good friends. He set the family standard which is partly why Alex is having such a miserable time. How can he possibly compete with his brother who has it all? The thing is, James doesn’t have it all and comes to realize this—and in the process, learns a great deal about himself, his brother, and their relationship.
I didn’t like James at first. It’s a measure of how effectively he’s written that I was rooting for him at the end, just as much as I was rooting for Alex. And Alex, lost soul at the beginning, does get it together and emerges as a whole, healed, and happy person and even gets to experience the wonder of his first love—something that, sadly, still eludes James by the end of the book.
All in all, I really loved this story. It was unique and different, but grounded in the reality of adolescent life. There was ambiguity, which is good for a reader’s imagination, but enough closure that the book didn’t feel open-ended or incomplete. All of the characters, from the most minor bit players who barely have any time on page to the leading quartet of Alex, James, Henry, and Nathen are beautifully written and fully realized. And Nathen? I haven’t said anything about him in this review but I dare anyone who reads this book not to fall madly in love with him. You’ve been warned. 🙂