Kensington Books, 2008
CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge
Finished 12 Jun 2010
I initially started this book with a hefty dose of skepticism, I will confess. After The God Box, I’ve learned to treat YA novels involving homosexuality and religion with some caution, lest they attempt to beat me around the head with a message I already agree with. Me and message fiction, we tend to not get along so well.
However, I am pleased to say I think Robin Reardon pulled it off beautifully in Thinking Straight. The novel revolves around Taylor Adams, a young Christian teen who also happens to be gay. His parents are, predictably, completely horrified when he eventually comes out to them, so they ship him off to a local camp called Straight to God, where the leaders promise to pray away the gay – and any other problems the teens sent to them might have, including drugs, drinking and premarital sex. Taylor is forced to leave his new boyfriend, Will, and spend six weeks in a world full of teenagers who are, to put it frankly, screwed up, both by their own problems and by the supposed ‘cure’ they have to endure.
Taylor is an amazing character. He’s confident, intelligent and loyal to a fault. His voice comes vividly off the page and I quickly became engrossed in his struggles to hold onto who he was without endangering his future with Will and his love of God. If you’ve read my About page, you’ll know that I am an atheist. And, truth be told, I did find some of the religious aspects of the novel cloying. However, the best part of it was that 90% of the time, Taylor was right there with me, fighting back, arguing and making his own way through an extremely frightening situation with strength and grace. While I did not always agree with him, I did find his philosophy one I could accept and even respect, which made it much easier to cheer him on.
I did find him a little too good to be true in some aspects; perhaps a little too mature for his age, too sure of himself. The same with some of the other characters. However, Reardon seemed to be aware of this and managed to temper it before it became too annoying. I also found the use of “IM” terminology and acronyms jolting. Perhaps I am simply out of touch, since I am no longer a teenager, but I didn’t recognise half of them and found it irritating to have them explained to me every couple of pages. This was probably part of the narrative voice, but I think it would have been easier to stick to a few fairly obvious ones and/or leave them out altogether. Most people, as far as I know, do not typically use them in their everyday speech.
The supporting characters were believable and endearing in their own right, even (some of) the antagonists, and I found it interesting that Reardon chose to make Taylor an unreliable narrator in some respects, imputing different motives to their actions than was later revealed to be the case. While I am not entirely sure I buy that so many people could be covertly working towards the same goals without knowing it (it felt somewhat convenient), I did like the complexity and depth that they developed as characters. It underscored the main theme of the novel as well, which was generally about the assumptions we make about others and the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily take our knee-jerk response as the truth.
With regards to the main ‘message’ of the novel, what helped this succeed for me was the fact that Reardon built a framework in the story itself which made the occasionally preachy passages about homosexuality and acceptance less of an “here we go again,” eye-rolling speech to the choir and more a part of the evolution of the story. Taylor’s personal growth, and the growth of those around him, was quite fascinating to watch, and I think got the point across very effectively. I’m not sure I quite liked the (spoiler!) part about the abusive pastor – it was well done, but it still felt like a bit of a cliche, albeit one I wasn’t expecting. That combined with the unexpectedly explicit sexual content struck me as a little too mature for the age level of the characters (and readers!), and I kind of felt the relationship between Taylor and Will was a little too rushed to be believable. However, none of these problems really detracted from the overall enjoyment of the novel.
One of my favourite books as a young adult was Fleur Beale’s I Am Not Esther, a story about a teenage girl in a very similar environment. She gets sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are part of a religious cult and do everything they can to take away her identity and make her ‘obedient,’ including give her a new name – Esther. While Straight to God didn’t go that far with Taylor, there was always a sense that they wouldn’t be above it. Reardon did a great job conveying the helplessness and paranoia that a young person might feel when put into a situation they literally cannot escape from. There is a darkness underlying the apparent love and acceptance in the camp which is slowly unfolded throughout the story; I was honestly scared for him a lot of the time, which shows how caught up in things I became! And my inner writer was very satisfied with the way all of the elements worked in together.
Ultimately a very endearing book. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points raised, but it clearly has good intentions and carries it off well. Definitely recommended.