It’s disappointing when high expectations for a book aren’t met. That’s been my experience reading both John Green and David Levithan, two authors who are well-respected in the field of young adult literature. Though Will Grayson, Will Grayson was entertaining, and I see the merits, it was not one of my favorite books.
Published: April 6th 2010 by Dutton Children’s/Penguin
Source: local library (audiobook)
Synopsis (Goodreads): One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.
Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won both of them legions of faithful fans.
In theory, I should love John Green and David Levithan. I like contemporary YA, especially if it features LGBTQ characters and is smartly written. But I’ve abandoned two of Levithan’s books I had anticipated loving: Love is the Higher Law, about teens in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and Wide Awake, which is set against a Kansas governor demanding a recount in an attempt to invalidate the election of the first gay, Jewish President. I’m extremely interested in YA set against the events of September 11, yet found Levithan’s novel contrived. My undergraduate degree was in Political Science and from the University of Kansas, and I’ve been a liberal active in Kansas politics since I was a teenager, and I just didn’t find the way Levithan portrayed Kansas politics authentic. Granted, I didn’t get very far in either novel before being turned off, so I can’t really speak with authority about either book. But for whatever reason, Levithan’s work hasn’t resonated with me. I still very much respect his work and find him intelligent and articulate as a person, but I can’t say I’m a huge fan.
I’ve previously listened to Looking for Alaska, which I thought was good, but it didn’t wow me (you can read my review here). I greatly admire John Green as a person. He’s smart and funny and does amazing things to get teens reading and he just comes off as incredibly authentic and infectiously enthusiastic. But I just don’t fall in love with his books the way I expect myself to.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is one of the least realistic “realistic” young adult novels I’ve read. Green and Levithan have a lovely way with words, but their dialogue just doesn’t reflect the way Real Actual Teens talk—even smart, articulate ones (well, except for maybe the prolific and well-timed profanity, which sounds authentic). And while this results in lovely quotes that look fantastic in tumblr fanart, when reading (or in this case, listening) it makes me too aware of being in the story to suspend disbelief.
And if we want to talk realistic? The idea of a teen writing and staging an autobiographical musical funded by the school but without any faculty/staff supervision is just ridiculous. And seriously, how did Tiny Cooper pull that off? Writing lyrics is one thing, but the music? Who performed or recorded the accompaniment? It’s just so…contrived. And don’t even get me started on the striking coincidence of meeting another boy with your same name in a Chicago porn shop (I’ve also spent considerable time in downtown Chicago, and am confused on exactly where Frankie’s was if it was in walking distance of the Bean in Millennium Park.)
I can definitely see how this book appeals to teens, despite my complaints about the unrealistic plot device and dialogue. While as an adult, I wanted just shake both Will Graysons, as a Real Actual Teen, I would have totally related to gay Will’s depression and straight Will’s fear and inaction. Tiny Cooper is equal parts infuriating and endearing, and I really adored Jane’s smart quips. Yet the character I was most interested in—Maura—was the least developed. Gay Will’s begrudging friendship with her didn’t make much sense, and her betrayal was never really fleshed out. What made her tick? Why did she do what she did? I was left disappointed in that regard. She felt more like a plot device than a fully formed character.
I’ll read more John Green and David Levithan, I’m sure, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel the way about these beloved authors as their very hardcore fans do. I understand their appeal, but they just miss my personal sweet spot as a reader. I will say that this is one of my all-time favorite YA covers ever. The bokeh lights are perfect for the story, visually interesting, and eye-catching.
Lauren at Books that Smolder (Lauren is a Real Actual Teen in my book club at the library): “My favorite part about this book was its relevance. The book dealt with issues that need to be discussed and written about in a way that teenagers and adults can understand. Things like friendship, sexuality, depression, love, and ultimately unity through these things. I’ve been really into this concept lately. The concept that one person has the power to break down walls with a sledgehammer and create unity throughout the world.”