Book Review: “Honestly Ben” by Bill Konigsberg

Ben Carver is dreading the new semester at his elite private school in Massachusetts. He was taken by surprise when he fell in love with his best friend, Rafe; Ben had only been attracted to girls before and considers himself straight. All that ended when Rafe revealed that he’d been lying to Ben the whole time, but Ben still feels angry, and hurt, and kind of in love. He arrives back at school determined to focus on getting the grades he needs to get a scholarship to college, but he is soon distracted by Hannah, a girl he’s definitely attracted to – even though he also still has feelings for Rafe.

Since it’s been close to four years since Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight came out, I honestly wasn’t expecting a sequel to appear – but I can’t claim I’m disappointed! I loved Konigsberg’s contemporary take on the experience of figuring out your sexuality in high school; even having the support of your family and friends doesn’t make identity easy.

In the sequel, Konigsberg switches things up by making Ben, not Rafe, the central character, but his attention to the world of changing attitudes about sexuality is as sharp as ever. I may even have liked this book more, since it explicitly broadens sexuality into a spectrum rather than a binary. One example – Ben resolutely considers himself a straight man who happens to be in love with a boy, rather than bisexual; he just doesn’t feel like the label describes him. In fact, the book is very nuanced when addressing Ben’s sexuality. Rafe is convinced Ben is actually gay and just not ready to fully admit it, and at other times the text wonders if Ben’s feelings about labels are caused by the larger cultural phenomenon of Bi erasure. At the end of the day, though, Honestly Ben prioritizes Ben’s opinions about his own sexuality, and that’s really important.

But even a book with the best politics wouldn’t be much fun to read without great characters, and I’m happy to report that Konigsberg has furnished plenty of them. I always liked Ben in Openly Straight, and he remains a favorite of mine even after we get inside his head. Hannah, who could have felt very cardboard, a distraction from the “real” story, begs for more screen time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a second sequel is forthcoming sometime in the future. Though the book could be read separately from Openly Straight, I recommend reading them both – the emotional payoff is way better.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.