Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Openly Straight," by Bill Konigsberg

The Protagonist: Seamus Raphael "Rafe" Goldberg. A high school student who's off to spend his junior year at an all-boys boarding school. He also happens to be gay.
His Angst: While he's fine with being gay, he's tired of having his homosexuality define everything about him, so he decides to keep it  on the DL at his new school. But what happens when he develops feelings for a classmate?

Secondary Cast:

Claire Olivia: Rafe's best friend who is not happy to be abandoned in Colorado while he's off in New England.

Albie: Rafe's roommate at boarding school. Weird, sloppy, but a good friend.

Toby: The skinny, openly gay BFF of Albie.

Ben: A huge, taciturn, but surprisingly insightful and empathetic classmate who develops a strong friendship with Rafe - but will it turn into something more?

Bryce: Ben's roommate and close friend who suffers from a mental illness, which reveals the "tolerant" attitude of Rafe's boarding school might only be policy-deep.

Steve: The Alpha Male of the boarding school, whom Rafe initially looks up to. Appears easygoing and tolerant on the surface, but he may not be as nice as he seems.

Angst Checklist:
  • My Parents are Embarassing
  • Sexual Identity
  • One's Identity Apart from Sexual Identity
  • Creative Expression
  • Boyfriends
  • Boys Who Also Happen to be Friends
  • Lying versus Omitting 
  • Homophobia
  • Mental Illness
  • Inspiring Teachers
The Word: This is my first piece of Book Expo swag - I received it from a sales rep from Scholastic during the BEA Blogger Con Happy Hour and I started reading it nearly right away. 

Rafe is tired of being the That Gay Guy. Don't get him wrong, he's fine with his sexuality. More than fine. His parents are crazy supportive of him - with perhaps a little bit too much emphasis on the crazy. They make such a big deal about his sexuality that sometimes Rafe worries that other people in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado see him as THE GAY DUDE first and the actual dude second. 

For his junior year, Rafe decides to attend a boy's boarding school in New England. There, where he can be hundreds of miles away from Boulder, hundreds of miles away from his rainbow-flag-waving parents, he hopes to have an opportunity to get to know other guys as a person and not as a label. However, Rafe discovers the line between being discreet about his sexuality and being back in the closet is blurrier than it sounds - especially once he starts crushing on a classmate. 

Openly Straight definitely raises some interesting questions about being gay and how big a part it plays in a person's identity. Konigsberg does an excellent job conveying how, even in a tolerant community, Rafe still feels set apart because he is gay. He doesn't have any close guy friends. People still make assumptions about him based solely on his sexuality - and even when those assumptions are harmless or positive, they're not based on getting to know him, but on his label as "The Gay Kid." Rafe doesn't have a problem with people knowing he's gay - he just doesn't want it to be the first thing people know about him. 

That being said, Rafe is an extremely privileged character. Sure, he's gay - but he's also white, his parents love him to pieces, he has an awesome best friend in Claire Olivia, and his family is wealthy enough to ship him off to Massachusetts on a whim. The novel does make a few attempts to acknowledge just how well off Rafe is (such as when he encounters closeted kids while on a speaking engagement), but there are many moments in the novel where he comes off as selfish and whiny. Oh, your parents love you too much? How awful for you. Although there's definitely an argument to be made that even gay kids who are accepted still have problems integrating their sexual identity into their everyday identity, I often found it hard to sympathize with Rafe and his revelation at the novel's end seemed too obvious. 

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the almost-not-quite-romance between Rafe and his classmate, Ben. Ben identifies as straight, but views everyone equally and tries to keep an open mind about everything. His growing and stereotype-defying bond with Rafe, and the honesty with which he expresses himself, depicts exactly the sort of attitude Rafe wants to experience from the world at large - even as Rafe becomes increasingly worried about his own honesty in their relationship. 

While the novel is intelligent and raises a lot of interesting questions, I admired it more than I liked it. As I mentioned previously, Rafe is a bit of a spoiled character and I don't think the narrative does enough to remind us how fortunate he truly is. As well, the writing style is short and to the point - which, while serviceable, is not really a style I personally enjoy. That being said, I definitely recommend it in terms of interesting discussion and an original story.


  1. tnx or the review. i just heard of the book recently abd it sounds okay. bummr that rafe had moments were he was whiny


  2. There is a saying that you should never have sex with a man on your first date. In fact, it's better if you hold off until you're absolutely certain that he is serious about you.