Rating: 4.5 stars
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Aaron is a high school student living under the thumb of his tyrannical father, an Amish preacher. Aaron is only permitted to attend public school because of his phenomenal testing, some fancy footwork by the high school principal, and his father’s belief that Aaron will one day take over as leader of their Amish community. Sadly, Aaron is not happy; he is teased and tormented at school daily, and hates his treatment at home. The worst bully is Josh Lapp, a popular jock who can’t leave the geek with the stupid clothes, ugly glasses, and bad haircut in peace. Josh has no idea that Aaron has no control over his appearance, which is all decided by Aaron’s overbearing father.
A confrontation in the hallways changes Josh’s perception of Aaron, and Josh suddenly changes his tune, befriending, defending, and protecting Aaron, much to Aaron’s confusion and worry. Josh also makes an effort to learn about Aaron’s life at home and is dumbfounded by the life Aaron lives, which is so different from what he is accustomed to. Josh experiences first-hand the hostility and distrust that the Amish community feels for outsiders upon meeting Aaron’s father. Aaron’s attraction to Josh is unmistakable, but could never come to light, and to Aaron, Josh’s sudden friendship is baffling. Josh sets Aaron up with new clothes, a haircut by his mom, and new glasses courtesy of his dad, an optometrist, and the changes in Aaron are like night and day.
While out with Josh after school, Aaron gets caught by his father dressed “normally” and is savagely whipped that same night. The next day at school, Josh discovers the horrific beating, and, as a result, Aaron is treated and taken in by Josh’s family. Aaron becomes emancipated and confronts his father, closing the door to the past and allowing Aaron to focus on the future. While staying with Josh’s family, Aaron learns about life away from the Amish community, becoming acclimatized to his new life in the outside world.
Aaron’s stellar performance in high school gets him accepted to Cornell University with a full ride scholarship, and Aaron and Josh both end up attending Cornell together. They are assigned to the same dorm room and Josh continues to be very protective of Aaron. Things aren’t easy for the boys, however. Aaron is concerned that he and Josh are missing out on making new friends at school and other students in the dorm have noticed and commented on Josh’s over-protective behavior. Aaron’s lack of understanding of cultural references lead to confusion when Josh calls him his “ugly duckling,” leading Aaron into the arms of another man who turns out to be bad news. Josh is upset since he didn’t even realize Aaron was gay, further complicating things between the young men.
I really felt for Aaron, a lost duckling, fragile and vulnerable, yet strong and beautiful, both inside and out. Although stories of an Amish teen who wants more from his life are pretty common these days, they never fail to call to me and I invariably feel for the character. Josh is the wild card in Swan Song for an Ugly Duckling. The popular jock spends so much time making Aaron’s life miserable, then does a complete 180 after yet another bullying incident, where a simple statement by Aaron changes Josh’s perception of him. Josh’s curiosity about Aaron prompts him to look past the surface that he has been mocking and he begins to see the kind soul under the surface. This sudden reversal caught me off guard and I was surprised that Josh would then spend so much time with Aaron and never get any flack from his friends.
We then travel through the next year like a series of snapshots: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring, high school graduation, Aaron’s first party, and first paid summer job. This technique for showing the passing of time has been used in film over the years effectively and worked surprisingly well in terms of the information provided and the flow of the story.
I did wonder about Josh throughout the book. Is he gay and interested in Aaron, or is his behavior akin to a protective brother? The growth seen in Josh was also a bit confusing, as I had an idea as to what was motivating his actions, but the popular jock becoming the outcast’s friend overnight felt like a stretch. We already know from being in Aaron’s POV that Aaron is gay and remained closeted out of fear of his father. In college, the fear is the same, yet different; Aaron is still afraid of admitting he is gay, but now because is terrified of losing his best friend if he admits his feelings for Josh. Aaron’s transition was pretty rushed but could easily be explained since all he wanted from the time we met him was to be “normal,” which made Josh and his family’s interference a dream come true. Since the focus was primarily on Aaron and Josh, the two-dimensional secondary characters were not detrimental to the story, and in the case of those in the Amish community, this lack of depth made perfect sense.
The college experience was not the fun and carefree situation that the boys would normally have had due to Josh’s overprotectiveness towards Aaron and Aaron’s desire for more friendships and socializing with other students. It was apparent to me that Aaron was not adapting as well as it appeared, no thanks to Josh, and was still lagging behind everyone else in terms of cultural references. This obvious lack of awareness by Josh proved to be a big problem, and even with the HEA, if something as simple as a nursery rhyme can have such a drastic and potentially damaging impact on Aaron and Josh’s relationship, I can imagine something similar happening in the future, if Josh is not careful and if Aaron does not learn to ask questions when something does not make sense to him.
This was a very sweet story that did have me tearing up at times. I liked Aaron’s strength and Josh’s softer side and was pleased that Murphy did not attempt to throw the Amish lifestyle under the bus, but rather pointed out how unlimited power can corrupt even those with the best of intentions. I would recommend Swan Song For An Ugly Duckling to those who like a story about breaking conventions and overcoming the odds. I will definitely be reading this story again in the future.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.