by Bill Konigsberg
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars
Oh man, did I ever have high hopes for this one. If Openly Straight had all the feels, though, its sequel had maybe two. Two feels. I really enjoyed Ben as seen through Rafe’s eyes, and now that I’m seeing Ben as he sees himself, I like him less – but that is part of the story. Ben comes from hardworking, humble, quiet stock, particularly his dad, and as a result he doesn’t see himself as smart or deserving of praise.
After the tumult of exploring with Rafe in the fall, Ben is looking forward to a more focused spring semester: baseball season starting (he’s elected captain) and buckling down on his schoolwork to keep the prestigious scholarship he’s been chosen for. But the pressures of trying to be who everyone (his dad, teammates, headmaster) wants him to be eventually get to him. Even with his new girlfriend, he can’t stop thinking about Rafe.
SPOILER ALERT: Ben and Rafe get back together but the honeymoon is quickly over when Ben won’t be his boyfriend openly. Ben gives a big speech ostensibly to accept the scholarship but ends up being true to himself, which costs him the scholarship and also his relationship with his dad because he confesses to cheating on a test and comes out as being in love with Rafe. When he can’t stay at home for spring break and his one-week suspension, Ben goes with Rafe to Boulder, where he is instantly overwhelmed with other people insisting he’s now gay.
My favorite conversations were the ones where I could see both sides of the conflict equally clearly. I could understand Mrs. Goldberg’s insistence that if he’s in love with a boy, he is at least bisexual, if not gay, but also Ben’s assertion that he shouldn’t have to accept labels if they don’t feel accurate and it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in denial. I could understand how hard it was for Ben, as a minor still essentially in his parents’ care and at risk of becoming homeless, to come out at all, but also how that could look like shame to Rafe, who wants to be loved openly. I could see Hannah not wanting to be abandoned for Rafe who had just been dumped, but also that Ben felt a loyalty to Rafe. I could see how hard it was for Ben’s mom and brother to fight their own battles within the family, and also how much Ben wanted them to stand up to his dad. I could understand Ben feeling close to both Hannah and Rafe.
Two other things I really loved were: 1. Toby’s journey of coming out as gender fluid, as it’s the first time I’d read about it in a character and I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to be able to see themselves in books; and 2. Ben and Mrs. Goldberg talk about bisexual erasure, which is definitely a thing and which is definitely not talked about in books (which happens to underscore how it’s a thing). Also – I tagged this as “humor” which might seem weird given how heavy the topics are, but it’s because some parts made me laugh out loud.
Overall: very important, but not nearly as angsty and feeling-driven as I’d hoped from the first book.