What They Always Tell Us
By: Martin Wilson
Rating: 4.5 / 5
JAMES AND ALEX have barely anything in common anymore—least of all their experiences in high school, where James is a popular senior and Alex is suddenly an outcast. But at home, there is Henry, the precocious 10-year-old across the street, who eagerly befriends them both. And when Alex takes up running, there is James’s friend Nathen, who unites the brothers in moving and unexpected ways.
Wow…was this an enjoyable read! After reading “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” and “Boyfriends with Girlfriends”, both of which ended up being dull disappointments, this was a great turn around!! I really enjoyed most of the novel. I have just a few small issues, but none of which I consider overly serious in terms of the quality of the book and the read…just small personal comments of my own. So, if you’re thinking about giving this book a try, I can say it was definitely worth it for me and is a great read!
Let’s start with the positives I saw. The first one is how well Wilson wrote both of the characters. The book focuses on both brothers, and moves between both of them each chapter. So one chapter is from Alex’s point-of-view and then the next chapter is from James’. Weird enough, this a style that both “Will Grayson” and “Boyfriends” used, but the only difference is Wilson makes it work so much better. In “Will Grayson” you switch between two completely different characters with completely different life stories with very little overlap, and in “Boyfriends” we switch perspective between all four characters and it’s just too much to handle. The characters in this story are different characters, but they’re brothers so the difference isn’t really that great. I really think that’s what saves the style. The fact that the two go through much the same things in terms of going to the same school and living in the same setting, but just have completely different lifestyles and lives. Truly, it’s the fact these two are brothers and have so much in common and yet live completely different lives that makes the style for this novel work, in my opinion. Also, it’s was just very well executed and written.
Also, I think that a really strong plus for this book was that it didn’t have the objective of focusing on a gay relationship. It was a YA novel first, and it just happened to contain a gay character. Actually, I felt the relationship played a minor role in the book overall…well not minor in that it was amazingly touching, moving, and profound for Alex, but it wasn’t the focus I felt like. I really enjoyed how it was gradually developed, and how all the characters acted. I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of “magic” going on, and it felt like a very natural and real development with the one exception on how Nathen kissed Alex very suddenly…but let’s be honest that’s how things work so it’s not unexpected or unbelievable. Overall, I felt the relationship was handled very nicely, and it was beautiful. My biggest complaint is that there was no good resolution at the end, but I’ll discuss this further a little latter.
The other aspect that I thought was really well done was how Wilson expressed so many of the feelings of a teenager about to graduate High School, and also the feelings of those kids who are still finding their way and feel such deep sadness. I really loved how Wilson went about describing and depicting the sadness of his characters, it felt very real and very appropriate for a YA novel. I could really relate to those moments. I think what I liked most was the fact that there were no names given or reasons explained for why these kids were sad, they just were and other kids saw it reflected in their eyes. Speaking of which, that is something I really loved about Alex’s character. I loved that after he started making his “recovery” and becoming happier in his life, he could still see the sadness in other people’s eyes because that’s what he felt for so long. I loved how he could suddenly recognize this sadness in others because he’d been there…and was still there in some ways.
I felt that James was very well written, too. I liked how Wilson could switch between the two mindsets of James and Alex, especially when it came to being straight vs being gay. What I mean by this is simply that in writing Alex, Wilson makes the readers go through a lot of the same stresses and emotions gay teens have when put into situations like Alex’s, but at the same time masterfully captures the other side of the fence without having any crossover. I don’t know if that’s really challenging or not, but I was impressed how well both characters were written and kept the aspects that made them unique contained in their part of the story…if that makes any sense.
If you can’t tell already, I’m in love with both Alex and James and how Wilson wrote these two characters. Not only were both characters extremely memorable and beautiful in their own way, but Wilson did an outstanding job in honoring them and writing them masterfully. Without a doubt in my mind this makes the book. However, there is one major aspect of the book which I did not enjoy and is the reason why I took off half a point….
About halfway through the book, I knew it was either going to be one of those books that was going to make me extremely happy or extremely sad (which sad to me is happy anyway, but you get the point). And I couldn’t tell which, so I was anticipating the ending; waiting with every chapter for a clearer indication of what was going to happen, but that moment never came. James was given a very nice ending; his story was wrapped up very nicely and had a feeling of being closed, however Alex did not. This is what bothered me the most and I feel really ruins an aspect of the book. All this time we’re going along with Alex on his emotional and psychological recovery, but then we don’t get a good closing to that recovery. Also, we don’t get any solid answers on his relationship, which it seems Wilson brought up at one moment, but pushed it aside to never be addressed again. For clarification, Nathen, Alex’s boyfriend, is a senior and graduated with James at the end of the novel, but Alex is a Junior…so we were all stuck wondering what the two of them were going to do in order to make the relationship work while Nathen is away at college in New York. It just felt like at the end of the novel that James’ story had a very good closing, but Alex’s was not as nicely done leaving a bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth.
To be completely fair however, Alex’s ending isn’t completely forgotten or neglected. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Wilson felt Alex’s story was wrapped up since the reader is left with the obvious impression that he is going to be fine in his future endeavours in life. Even though we don’t know exactly what he and Nathen plan to do for the following year, or what he felt personally, we see through James’ eyes that Alex is happy, and will go on to live a good life now that he has found himself. So from that perspective, I can understand not giving a personal closing to Alex, since we really don’t need to know what’s going to happen between Nathen and Alex…we just know that Alex will go on and live a full life. However, I just can’t disregard how so much of Alex’s story was left unfinished versus James at the end of the novel. I would have very much preferred seeing strong solid ending for both characters.
Now maybe I missed something towards the end about Alex and Nathen, so please inform me if I’ve somehow overlooked a major aspect of the book! But I do not recall reading anything that gave any good answers about Alex and Nathen towards the end. All I remember is Alex thinking about the issue once, but then the issue never coming up again.
Also, one thing that slightly bugged me early on in Alex and Nathen’s relationship was the lack of development of Nathen. I really wish we could have gotten more about Nathen through both Alex and James’ point of view. It just felt like he was left as too much of a mystery even from both point of views, which if anything Alex’s side of the story should have revealed more about him. I’m not taking anything away because of this because I consider it rather minor and it didn’t take away anything in my opinion, but it was just something that slightly bothered me. This is also another reason why I felt the relationship wasn’t really the focus of the book. The novel was more of a YA piece first with a gay character in it second.
Anyway, beyond that small caveat of mine, this book is brilliant! A really great and enjoyable YA novel. I’d strongly recommend it to anyone!
Next up on the list is “Boy Meets Boy” by David Levithan. I’ve actually already started reading this (just today), and I’m already halfway through! It’s a pretty light read and moves very quickly. First impressions are that it’s a really great book! Some very different elements from the typical YA gay literature, but still enough in common with everyday experiences that it doesn’t feel like a fantasy. You’ll be hearing more about this book along with my more detailed thoughts after I finish! ;)
I hope that you have enjoyed the review and maybe found it useful in some manner! If you’ve read the novel or have any comments, questions, or suggestions on future books, please feel free to send me an ask!! I’m always open to hear from anyone about these books! :D
Thanks for reading and see you soon,