Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

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Reviewed by: Honorary Sis Sarah P.

The Sisters Say: Beautifully moving and incredibly original. David Levithan's finest work.

New York Times  bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS. 

While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other.

The very best books are the hardest to review. Because I'm always anxious that I can't possibly do the thing justice. But here goes:

I'm a big fan of David Levithan's work. The opening page of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is one of my all time favorites. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is one of the most warmhearted books I've read in the past couple of years. And while I usually eschew paranormal plot lines, One Day is the sort of book you have to read to understand its genius.

And although the premise for Two Boys Kissing (a Guinness Book record?) and the unusual narrative voice (a bunch of dead guys?) did not spark my interest, I decided to give the book a try.

I'm so glad that I did!

The genius of Two Boys Kissing is that it's not really a book about the difficulties of being a gay teenaged boy. It's a book about the difficulties of being human. Levithan's impeccable observance of human nature drives an unlikely plot forward.

I found the Greek Chorus narrative voice to be distracting until, oh, perhaps page 3. And then they made me cry about fifty times in quick succession. Because dead narrators have instant credibility and poignancy. (Think of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.) And if, like Levithan, the author is careful not to overplay the grief card, that credibility can lead the reader forward with strong hands:
“We gather the things we learned, and they don't nearly add up to fill the space of a life.
You will miss the taste of Froot Loops.
You will miss the sound of traffic.
You will miss your back against his.
You will miss him stealing the sheets.
Do not ignore these things.” 
And like the reader herself, a dead narrator is omniscient, but also powerless to affect the action on stage. Levithan uses that helplessness to up the ante. Together, we can only watch the train wrecks occur. This is a "medley book," where the reader is asked to keep track of its cast of characters. And all these characters are teenaged boys in various states of happiness, but somehow it's not confusing. As the Guinness hopefuls' drama plays out, we get glimpses of the other characters' foibles. And the whole tangle comes to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion before the last page.

Disclaimer: it's very unusual to find a YA book narrated by voices older than the teen years. I am (*cough*) a bit past my own teenaged years, too. So this book had special resonance for me. Those men who died of AIDS in the early nineties? I knew those men. I heard the echo of their voices in this book. So if you're younger than me, perhaps this narrative will reduce you to tears twenty times instead of fifty.

Nonetheless, this is the sort of book I'd like to hand out on street corners. My goal in doing so wouldn't be to teach tolerance. It would be to pass on the experience of reading a narrative of true originality and real genius.

I sure hope you enjoy it as much as I did!