Elliot Goldman has spent his life in a small town in southwestern Michigan. He’s mostly been content with his lot. Sure, his parents are both overachievers who put in long hours at their high power jobs and his sister tested out of two years of highschool. But Elliot can cook just about anything and arguably his best feature is one most often unsung: he’ll sacrifice himself to save someone else from the pain of bullying. That last part is nothing new. When a group of boys started picking on his sister in grade school, Elliot went out of his way to draw their attention to him and away from her. Now they’re all in high school, but just like Elliot has grown, so has the intensity of the bullying. Despite sympathy from several of the staff at school, Elliot just wants to keep his head down and his nose clean and make it out of high school. He knows any intervention will only end in more severe bullying.
And there is a bright spot. A transfer student named Jordan Hughes gets assigned as Elliot’s lab partner in AP Chemistry. Not only is Jordan a whiz at their assignments, but he’s actually…nice. He’s actually interested in being Elliot’s friend and not even the bullies will deter him. It takes a while for Elliot to believe anyone wants to be his friend, but Jordan persists. And soon, they’re hanging out on the regular. Suddenly, Elliot finds himself enjoying his senior year of high school far more than he thought possible. Until Jordan kisses him. Elliot never thought about dating a boy—he never thought about dating anyone. As much as he likes Jordan, Elliot is confused about the boundaries between friends and boyfriends. Just when he’s overthinking things and prepared to lose the only friend he’s ever really had, Jordan manages to be exactly as patient as Elliot needs. But having a secret boyfriend won’t stay secret for long. When the bullies suspect, and later confirm, that Elliot and Jordan are indeed an item, the bullying escalates into outright assault. Hopefully Elliot and Jordan can find a way to put an end to it once and for all without involving the police.
I rather enjoyed Lab Partners. Personally, the setting reminded me of my own high school years in a tiny town in neighboring Wisconsin and I could really identify with the culture and the idea of a school being too small for actual cliques. I thought Montgomery did a great job describing the setting and the events of high school students. Because this is told in first-person, we get the clearest picture of Elliot. He strikes me as someone who is alone and maybe a little bit lonely, but doesn’t fully understand what he’s missing until Jordan comes into his life. His routine highlights how he’s often home alone and making dinner for his family by himself most week nights. I thought it was interesting how clearly in absentia his parents/sister were, yet that doesn’t cause strife in the family (and we actually do see all these people on page, so he’s not cast as a complete de facto orphan).
When it comes to character building, I thought Montgomery really took the time to massage Elliot into a multi-dimensional person. For me, I found his self-discovery and acceptance of being attracted to boy to be well thought out and explored on page. His reactions go through what I imagine are not unusual ones for people just discovering their identities: Elliot is in denial he could be outside the heteronormative default, then gets curious about how he could be gay, then embraces his new identity. However, the sweetness was a bit marred for me by none other than Jordan. In general, he’s a very likeable character. He honestly seems interested in Elliot as a person first. But as soon as Jordan makes is clear to Elliot that Jordan is interested in Elliot romantically, I thought Jordan as a character shifted. Maybe I read too much into it, but it felt like a lot of Jordan’s behavior shifted from “I am your friend” to “I am your friend and I will convince you we should be boyfriends.” It came across as a bit unrelenting, like when decides he’s going to help “convince” Elliot he’s gay, or he tells Elliot he’s “in denial […] and I’m going to help fix that.” Maybe it’s supposed to balance out when Elliot later asks Jordan to “convince” him, but I found this part of Jordan’s character somewhat distasteful.
In addition to the self-discovery/coming out themes in the book, there is a strong thread that covers high school bullying. Personally, I found it rather marked that Elliot often mentions he intentionally makes himself the target of bullies so that others won’t draw the bullies’ attention…yet no one else seems to see, understand, and/or care that Elliot does this. It is incredibly in light of the fact that Elliot has done this for literally years. Equally incredible is how, even when Elliot suffers a very intense beating that left him with a broken nose and several bruised ribs (which occurred on school property, no less), no one seems to raise an eyebrow. Montgomery gives Elliot an intense desire to keep the bullying under wraps—like he’s performing a public service (which, sure). But when the taunting and name calling escalates into physical encounters that leave Elliot bloodied and bruised, I found it hard to believe all the adults concerned (parents and school personnel) would continue to turn a blind eye. For anyone who is sensitive to graphic depictions of physical abuse/bullying, this may not be a great selection for you.
Overall, I thought the themes of coming out as gay and high school bullying were very topical. The high school setting was relatable and the characters were interesting; I liked the suggestion of opposites attract between smart Jordan and Elliot, who is a self-imposed loner. The ending neatly wraps up the bullying thread and leaves our MCs in a positive place. All in all, I’d say this is a good read for anyone who likes reading stories about high schoolers or the themes mentioned above (again, noting that there is pretty graphic on-page description of physical bullying).