Saturday, February 7, 2009

Review: My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

It was definitely the subtitle that got me to read this book. Love, Mary Poppins and baseball (and not just baseball, but the poor Red Sox)? I had to know what it was about.

The story of TC's, Augie's and Ale's freshman year of high school is told mainly through diary entries, but also IMs, private chatrooms, text messages and e-mails. It's a sprawling story, chronicling more than a year in their lives, which makes summarizing this hard, but let's give it a shot.

TC and Augie have been best friends and brothers since elementary school when, shortly after TC's mother died, Augie was the only kid willing to talk to him. Since then they've done everything together, from sleepovers to family vacations. Augie puts up with TC's obsession with baseball, while TC tries to follow Augie's passion for musicals (turns out that Augie is gay and everyone but him knows it).

Ale, meanwhile, is the daughter of US diplomats - though she's more likely to start an international incident than follow in the family business. After her father retires from his position as ambassador, the family moves to Brookline, Massachusetts at the beginning of Ale's freshman year. TC is immediately smitten with Ale - who initially is determined to discourage TC's attention. She does, however, strike up a friendship with Augie when it comes time to produce the freshman talent show (Augie is director, Ale is producer). And of course where Augie goes, TC follows.

While TC is trying to woo Ale, he is also finishing up his baseball season where he has picked up a six-year-old deaf fan who tells TC when to swing at pitches. The boy, Hucky, is an orphan who has been bounced from foster home to foster home and has trust issues, but TC is as determined to bring this kid out of his shell as he is to get a date with Ale.

As Augie directs the freshman talent show, he not only befriends and mentors Ale, but also Andy - soccer player, swimmer, football fan and totally cute. Augie finds himself falling head over heels for the boy before he even realizes that it is a boy he is lusting after. Luckily, Andy feels the same way about Augie.

Ale takes dancing and singing classes, trying to keep her parents in the dark about her new-found hobbies. When not practicing or driving TC crazy, she pursues various social justice issues, from getting some of the more execrable songs cut from Kiss Me, Kate to building a baseball field at a memorial for the US Japanese internment camps of WWII (TC is helping with that one).

Yeah, like I said, there's a lot going on here, but most of it really works out. Sometimes I wondered about the convention of including e-mails and letters sent by parents and teachers - would the kids really have access to these to include them in a school paper? But other items, like Augie's mother's play reviews (a woman after my own heart - we're in agreement that Henry Higgins may be the worst character written for the stage EVER) add another fun level to the story. Also, sometimes it seems that Kluger got his electronic formats mixed up - when the kids were sending e-mails back and forth they would cut each other off. Which you definitely can't do in e-mail, and can't even do in most IM programs now (back in the day when I used ICQ there was a chat version that let you see what the other person was saying as they typed it, so theoretically you could cut someone off in that)

I do have to say I caught the book in a (relatively) big continuity problem. The book explicitly states that their freshman year was 2003. Yet Ale implies that Augie only discovered the musical Chicago in December of that year. Trust me, any musical fan worth his or her salt saw the movie version of Chicago back in 2001.

The relationship between Hucky and TC feels perhaps the most authentic in the book, followed closely by Ale and TC. The lengths TC goes to to make Hucky's life better are heartwarming. And the development of Ale's and TC's relationship definitely feels real.

And now, because this is a running theme for me, commentary on the gay characters: on the one hand, Augie and Andy are treated like any other couple. Augie's parents don't care (I don't believe we ever heard what Andy's parents thought), TC says "Duh" when Augie comes out over IM, and in their private e-mails Augie's dad wonders if "this generation" has made coming out superfluous. On the other hand, Augie is one big stereotype. He addresses a "Diva of the Week" in his diary, writing to Liza Minelli or Judy Garland (TC addresses his mom in his diary, and Ale spends most of her time writing to Jackie Kennedy, when really Eleanor Roosevelt seems like a first lady after Ale's own heart). Yes, he can also kick a soccer ball around, but after he starts going out with Andy it seems most of the sports drop out of his life. So points for treating a gay character like everyone else, but I would love to see a gay boy who is, I don't know, a big academic geek or something. They all seem to be either queens who love mince around singing show tunes or, in an effort to buck that stereotype, athletes. Here, Augie tries to be both of those (with more emphasis on the show tunes), but still comes off as a stereotype.

And yet, while Augie is quite stereotypical in some regards, I did appreciate the glimpses at his and Andy's relationship. In some ways it's not as well-rounded as TC's and Ale's, but that's partly because with Augie and Andy we only get Augie's diary on the relationship, while both TC and Ale contribute their own halves to the story.

So while on one level I can find lots of things to nitpick about this story, overall it comes across very well and was extremely enjoyable.

1 comment:

MissAttitude said...

I actually haven't read many LGBT books and the few I did read, athleticism wasn't much mentione, so to me it was refreshing to see Augie playing soccer, water polo and lacrosse.

I love Chicago and I totally missed that; when Ale said Augie just discovered in 2003. That totally doesn't add up. Unless Augie hasn't even seen the movie version of Chicago.

Thanks for linking to your review :)

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