Book Review: “Openly Straight” by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, finally appearing in paperback two years after it was first published, is a searingly honest and original exploration of teenage identity. The novel tells the story of high school junior Rafe from Boulder, Colorado, who has been out and proud since he was in the eighth grade. He’s lucky enough to come from an extremely supportive family and live in a welcoming community, meaning that he’s never had to face taunts or bullying because of his sexuality. Recently, however, he’s beginning to feel that those around him see him only as a gay person rather than as an individual. So when he switches from public high school in Boulder to a private high school across the country in Massachusetts – an all boys school, no less – he decides to hide his sexuality from his new classmates.

Clearly, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill YA coming out story, and not unexpectedly, Rafe’s plan doesn’t work out quite as he expected. While distancing himself from his gay identity does open up a new social world for Rafe, he discovers that there is a cost to suppressing such an important part of himself. Ultimately, he’ll have to navigate the treacherous waters of honesty, truth, desire, and self – a journey that is made more complicated by his deepening friendship and growing attraction to Ben, one of his classmates.

Konigsberg has done a masterful job of crafting a meaningful contemporary narrative of gay youth. The realities of life for gay teenagers, while still too often plagued with hardship, have changed rapidly in recent years, and often YA novels that depict their lives have not quite caught up to those changes. Konigsberg’s original take on young gay identity is not only refreshing but also necessary.

Besides being particularly timely, Openly Straight also has in spades all of the elements that, for me, make a YA novel really sing: characters that feel vibrant and of-the-moment, honest depictions of teenage relationships, a truly romantic moment or two, serious consideration of adolescent issues, and a healthy dose of humor. I will admit that I have only very rarely encountered such genuine male protagonists in realistic YA – usually they are either shallow automatons interacting in the author’s world, devoid of internal life, or prop-boyfriends for the heroine (at least they look pretty). Konigsberg gives us not one but a school-full of breathing teenage boys, warts and all. Maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong books, but I’m impressed by Konigsberg’s talent nonetheless. It’s not always pretty, but it is refreshingly real and honest.

At times heartbreaking, other times inspirational, Openly Straight is a complicated story with a complicated ending, all of which results in a riveting and extremely truthful novel that you won’t want to put down.