Book Review: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

Gamer girls and metal guys: this one hooked me at the synopsis, and I wasn’t at all disappointed.
Guy in Real Life
Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

Published: May 27th 2014 by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

ISBN: 9780062266835

Find: Amazon| Goodreads | Library

Source: ARC from publisher

Genre: Realistic/Contemporary YA Fiction and YA romance

Perspective: Alternating 1st person

Synopsis (Goodreads): From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning comes Guy in Real Life, an achingly real and profoundly moving love story in the vein of Rainbow Rowell and John Green, about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.

It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.

But they don’t.

This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other’s lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn’t belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren’t in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play-at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends-and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.

My thoughts: Sure, half of the young adult contemporary/realistic titles coming out in 2014 are being pitched as “for fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green” and I’m not a fan of this sort of reductive approach to recommending books, but in this case, many of the appeal factors that readers love about Rowell and Green can be found in Guy in Real Life. It’s got the requisite nerdiness in the form of role-playing gamers. There are plenty of quirky pop culture references. These teens are smart and self-aware. The plot revolves a will-they-or-won’t-they get together romance.

But there was an extra layer to Guy in Real Life that I think sets it apart from other geeky YA contemporary novels. Though the question of gender identity and attraction aren’t exactly subtle, it’s deftly integrated into the story. The most profound moment of this book is hidden at the end, but I found it thought-provoking and also fitting to the story. Svetlana asks Lesh, after finding out that he created a role playing character with her name and inspired by her image, “do you like me or do you want to be me?”

And Lesh doesn’t exactly know.

I really enjoyed Brooklyn, Burning, but it’s not a book I’ve had much luck recommending to teens. The premise is difficult to encapsulate in a one sentence book pitch, which is typically all I have to hand sell a book to a teen. And the writing is good, but not nearly as accessible as that found in Guy in Real Life. Brezenoff is still questioning gender roles and identity in Guy in Real Life, but the story is much more approachable, and the gender issues don’t seem like the point.

Alternating first person present is not my favorite perspective. I generally approach books that use it with skepticism. It’s often difficult to distinguish each character’s voice. I find the back and forth often slows down the plot. When readers are given the same events from both characters point-of-view, the story can become redundant or repetitive. But Lesh and Svetlana were both interesting and distinct. Both perspectives contributed to the story, but not in an angsty, drama-laden way.

I thought Brezenoff really captured the social dynamics of both the Metal heads as well as the table-top gaming geeks. This is a story about a very specific subset of the high school social hierarchy. There are plenty of books that tell the story of the popular cheerleaders and the captains of the football or basketball teams. I personally really enjoy this trend of exploring other ways of being a teenager.

The book includes lengthy passages detailing the adventures of Lesh’s alter-ego, Svvetlana, inside the MMO, as well as detailed scenes from the campaigns Svetlana crafts for her RPG. Similar to reader reactions to the excerpts of fanfiction in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, there will be those who are put off by their inclusion and those who find them delightful. Luckily, I fell in the latter category, even though my experience with both forms of RPGs is negligible. Rather than amusing asides, these scenes are integral to the story.

An interesting twist brings the climax rushing in, and this event will prompt questions of the potential danger of an online persona. I wish this would have been further explored, because the conclusion tied up quite neatly and there weren’t any real consequences of this subplot besides the Lesh being outed as a MMO player who happened to have modeled his avatar off a real-life girl he was crushing on.

Guy in Real Life is a satisfying realistic romance for those who gravitate toward the geek but want a little depth to the story.

Recommended for fans of: For reasons aforementioned, this will appeal to fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green (I promise). In fact, I liked it better than both in some ways.

Second opinions:

Amanda at Cite Something: “The overriding idea that appearances can be deceiving and that we all play different roles at different times–especially when forging an identity as a teenager–is universally relatable.”

Kirkus: “In a first-person narration that alternates between the boy in black and the girl dungeon master, Brezenoff conjures a wry, wise and deeply sympathetic portrait of the exquisite, excruciating thrill of falling in love.”

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