It’s New Year’s Eve and all the cool seniors of Fairvale Academy—plus tagalong Kai Sheridan—are at a house party. Kai is mixed race, and a closeted gay teen boy. Though he’s ridiculously awkward, his popular friends Donny and Priya love him dearly, yet Kai often feels like a third wheel now that they are dating. “It Boy” Bryson Keller is expounding on the fallibility of love, and how it doesn’t make sense to date people in high school, because those relationships are destined to end. Kai’s a bit shocked by this cynicism and listens in as the crowd rails against Bryson. Kai can’t fathom why a handsome, wealthy athlete like Bryson would find dating so pointless. And, that’s when the dare begins: Bryson, who’s not really dated much in high school, is dared to accept any request for him as a boyfriend, and be the perfect boyfriend (though with NO physical contact) to that person for Monday-through-Friday of that week. And the girls are lining up.
Kai’s not really into Bryson, having a long-standing crush on his soccer teammate, Isaac. Still, it’s been a couple months of the Bryson Keller dating-train, and there are only two weeks left in the dare. Shannon, who runs and writes the paper and fancies herself an investigative reporter, has designs to ask Bryson out for the week. Kai is having a terrible morning, and Bryson is obliquely to blame. Frustrated with his situation, Kai asks out Bryson in the most antagonistic way possible—and Bryson… inexplicably agrees.
Kai comes out to Bryson before they do engage in their week-long “relationship” and Bryson is honored to be the first at their school to know Kai’s truth. During the course of their acquaintance, they begin to discuss real life, and the real problems they each have. Bryson had a lot of struggles overcoming the pain of his father’s infidelity—which broke his seemingly perfect family—and Kai helps him through some of that. Their “dating” remains on the down-low, at Kai’s request, but Shannon’s determined to find out who Bryson is secretly dating this week, and her interference causes big problems. The more Kai and Bryson connect, the less this relationship feels like a game. Instead, a real connection is formed and Bryson and Kai both need to re-evaluate how they go forward in a situation that is fraught with potential heartache.
This is a sweet and innocent YA love story that extends beyond the fall and into coming out—and there are moments of deep hurt followed by reconciliation. Kai and Bryson are both great young men, and their intimate struggles, who they are and how they love, move beyond the private to the public sphere, to great embarrassment and family conflict. Kai has a great relationship with his parents, but he fears they will be very upset if they learn his sexuality. Kai’s plan has always been to come out at college—and wait to tell his parents until way later, but some really tense moments of physical altercation bring the occasion much earlier than Kai wants. There is a lot of latent and overt homophobia in this story, and both Kai and Bryson fight against it. They aren’t alone, but they do shoulder the most abuse.
I really loved the story and the moments that Kai and Bryson share as their connection forms. For me, it got a little unrealistic near the end, with forced outing and thinly-described repercussions. To that point, the authenticity of the story seemed much more central, but when the homophobes seem to get off with barely any issue, that snapped me from the story. As a high school teacher, I know there are LOTS of consequences for a stunt like Kai and Bryson suffer, and I just got frustrated that they were seemingly twisting in the wind while their bullies are unscathed.
That said, there are many powerful and teachable moments in the story, and the “Love is Love” theme was first and foremost in the text. Kai tells the story and he’s an engaging narrator. His confusion and awe and frustration and hurt are completely apparent, as is his blushing that seems to be limitless. Kai is light-skinned and freckled, and he struggles with his bi-racial identity almost as much as his sexuality. I wondered about the blushing being as apparent as everyone seems to indicate—and I felt it got repetitive as a device to indicate Kai’s discomfort. Still, I really liked Kai, and Bryson, and them together. They lift each other up when they need someone to sit, to listen, or to talk through a bad moment. And, those are some of the best qualities I can imagine in a partner. This is a book to recommend to teens, and to those who enjoy a simple and beautiful YA love story.