David Levithan has built his career on telling stories about love. BOY MEETS BOY debuted in 2003, and Levithan has been steadily releasing novels ever since. NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, co-written with Rachel Cohn, became a mainstream film starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings. With John Green, he released WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON in 2011. In THE LOVER’S DICTIONARY, he constructed a love story told entirely in dictionary entries. Within the past year alone, he has released EVERY DAY, INVISIBILITY (co-written with Andrea Cremer), and now, TWO BOYS KISSING. Levithan’s stories all share an effortless lyricism, an aching honesty and a hearty dose of humor. They often represent love between two people of the same gender, a topic deserving of greater volume and visibility on YA shelves. His latest offering contains the multitudes that readers have come to expect from Levithan, and more besides. TWO BOYS KISSING is Levithan at his best. It is not only a good book. It is also an important book.
"Levithan digs at the heart of what it feels like to be young, in love, angry, confused, heartbroken, lost and, ultimately, hopeful."
Levithan’s mission is ambitious, and his execution polished. The central story line of TWO BOYS KISSING is based on a true story of two teenage boys who set out to break the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest kiss. In Levithan’s book, the boys are Harry and Craig, ex-boyfriends. Harry’s parents support his sexual identity; Craig’s parents don’t know about his yet.
But neither Harry nor Craig narrates this book. The reader hears their story through a kind of Greek chorus made up of gay men who died of AIDS during the 1970s and 1980s. This device deftly communicates both the strides that the United States has made toward equal rights for sexual minorities and the enormous lengths that still lay ahead of us. The chorus thrills that Harry and Craig can set out to kiss for 32 hours,12 minutes, and 10 seconds in front of their high school and find a vast network of supporters eager to cheer them on in person and through the live stream. The chorus cries for the kissing boys when bigots in a passing car throw eggs at Harry’s face. In one touching moment, they recognize one of their own: Mr. Bellamy, the high school history teacher, was with them on their deathbeds, and now stands guard over these two kissing boys.
The chorus also allows Levithan to tell the stories of several different gay teenage couples without switching point of view. The past generation watches over Neil and Peter, who have been in love for a while; Ryan and Avery, who are just starting to fall for each other; Tariq, who has fallen on the support of his friends after a brutal street attack left him injured and shaken; and Cooper, who is unspeakably alone. Neil hasn’t come out to his parents yet, even though he’s pretty sure they know that he’s gay. Ryan and Avery met at the gay prom that Ryan’s GSA organized. Avery is transgender, and he is relieved when this revelation does not push Ryan away. Cooper’s world comes crashing down when his parents discover him searching through a gay hook-up site online and chatting with strangers. He runs away and finds that there is no one in his contacts list that he wants to contact. Neil, Peter, Ryan, Avery and Cooper are all aware of the two boys kissing in front of the high school, and this central story connects them all.
Levithan’s prose drifts between the familiar banter of teenagers and the alternatively elegiac and hopeful musings of the chorus of AIDS victims. He turns out many a phrase worth holding. Readers will want to scribble his sentences on their hands to remember later. Levithan digs at the heart of what it feels like to be young, in love, angry, confused, heartbroken, lost and, ultimately, hopeful.
One of the most immediately striking aspects of this book is the cover. As the title might suggest, it features (you guessed it) two boys kissing. Many other YA books involving LGBTQ protagonists do not display acts of affection on their covers. The YA shelves are full of heterosexual couples kissing, embracing, looking longingly into each other’s eyes and so on, but queer youth don’t see much representation of their own lives and desires. TWO BOYS KISSING has taken a step to change this.
Levithan’s latest offering will not only entertain, but it will also soothe without coddling. It will foster empathy and understanding without ever preaching. It will give teens of all sexual orientations a bit of the history, factual and emotional, of the struggle for gay rights over the past few decades. Tragedies like Tyler Clementi’s death in 2010 and Russia’s current human rights abuses against LGBTQ-identified people prove to us that two boys kissing, publicly and spectacularly, is a political act deserving of our recognition. Most of all, this book will help us to think more clearly about love in its many forms: romantic love, family love, friendship love and self-love, to name a few. And Levithan, as he has proven again and again, is a master of writing about love.
Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on June 4, 2013