Thursday, April 3, 2014

Is This Romance? Review of a John Green Novel

I've heard a lot about John Green. You've heard about him too: he wrote A Fault in Our Stars. He's written 5 young adult novels, all acclaimed/prize-winning/bestsellers. The guy has some sort of magic when it comes to understanding teenagers and love. He's not pleasing the masses with what they want to hear; half his books are tragedies. But he's really good at human nature.

I don't like romances. My version of romance is the romantic misadventures/romcoms of P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde. But with the Fault In Our Stars movie coming out and every book club in America reading Green's novels, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

I went on Wikipedia and, disdaining spoilers, read the complete synopses of his 5 books. I saw fantastic plots. Quirky characters. Engaging writing. And teenagers, love, romance, angst, and tragedy.

I picked the book that looked least offensive in those categories: Will Grayson Will Grayson. I got it from the library with a handful of other books. It wasn't in the running when I debated what to read first; I figured I'd tackle WGWG last, languidly and as open-mindedly as possible.

Yet, somehow, I found myself picking it up and sitting down to read the first chapter. Just the first. 
And second. And third... In four short hours, I was halfway through the novel (successfully avoiding work).

Why? How could it hook me so fast, even though it's not a genre I usually read?

Firstly, my initial summation was correct: quirky and gritty characters; an engaging, well-communicated style; and a series of events that could happen to anyone and yet still felt personal, poignant, and larger-than-life. Ingredients to greatness.

There were teenagers and romantic angst. They weren't over-dramatized, nor were they wish-fulfillment. John Green and co-author David Levithan portrayed the dramatic responses of the characters--"she betrayed me, so I think of a million ways to kill her"--without either justifying or denigrating them.

It made me feel the angst of the characters without any judgment. I knew their emotions like I was in their shoes. I knew I'd act on my feelings the way they do, whether it was right or wrong. When people act on emotions, they sometimes go against what they know they should do. This book allowed the characters to hold conflicting opinions and desires and still act within that conflict.

The main character wants simultaneously to date his crush and to remain anonymous. At different times he acts on either of those two desires. Those sorts of inner conflicts are true to all of us.

It wasn't a cut-and-dry book. It didn't give a formulaic approach to life: "doing A is good; doing B isn't." I'm not knocking those kinds of stories because that's how most books are--and should be. The point of Crime and Punishment is that murder hurts the murderer; Harry Potter shows that making the right choice is better than making the easy choice. These books have an obvious moral formula, and they should, because of the issues they tackle.

But Will Grayson Will Grayson shouldn't and didn't. The point wasn't whether the characters were right or wrong in how they handled relationships. In truth, nobody knows what the right and wrong way to handle love is; it would be presumption for Green and Levithan to set up a formula for getting love right.

The point of WGWG was that no matter how you approach love or how it turns out, there are some things you can't go wrong with. Forgiveness; encouragement; honesty.

Another reason I liked it? Half the characters are gay, meaning half the romances are are too. I loved that. In books, LGBT relationships typically ring more true to me than ones with straight characters. This is because most romances do what Green didn't and baldly offer a formula for love. "This way works; that way doesn't."

You know what their formula is? Damsel in distress.*

Man-saves-the-lady stories can be gratifyingly mushy. But they don't feel true. Why? Because I'm a strong woman. I'm not usually in distress. I don't need my husband to save me and it's certainly not why we married.

Literature offers few romances for a woman like me. Strong females are a minority to begin with, and few of them are strong around their mates. The strong woman will come to the end of her strength and a stronger man will ride in just in time to save the day.

LGBT romance isn't like that. When two guys date, like in Will Grayson Will Grayson, there's no question of who's doing the saving or who's the one in need. Like real relationships, both need each other and both help each other. Their relationship is based on mutuality.

It told this to my spouse and he said, "You like romances where the gender issue is taken out completely." Yes, I guess. We've mishandled gender horribly in traditional romantic literature. LGBT relationships offer something even straight folks can learn from and/or want to see. Gay or straight, people love, fear, worry, hate, get together, break up. We're all human.

For my conservative readers wondering, the book doesn't have gay sex. Or any sex. Like straight romance, gay romance doesn't depend on sex. The physical isn't what makes it a romance.

Should you read Will Grayson Will Grayson? Absolutely. It'll make you laugh, make you angry, make you think, and make you nostalgic. It'll show you what good writing is. And what forgiveness is. And remind you how freaking emotional high school was.

Most of all, you won't be able to put it down.

Word count: 938.

* Hence why Wodehouse and Wilde are my go-to romance writers: they mocked the damsel in distress shamelessly. The irony that one of them was gay is not lost on me. Good old Oscar Wilde.