AUGUST 8, 2019
“FRIENDSHIP IS FAR MORE TRAGIC than love,” said Oscar Wilde. “It lasts longer.” Abdi Nazemian’s new YA novel, Like a Love Story, invokes this rather morose maxim, which aptly summarizes the heartbreaking fumbles of a teen love triangle in Reagan-era New York.
The three points of the triangle are Reza, a closeted Iranian boy whose journey partly mirrors Nazemian’s own upbringing; an earnest wannabe fashionista named Judy, who is self-conscious about her weight; and her mandatory “gay best friend,” Art, an angry ACT UP advocate and devoted photographer. Judy falls for Reza, who pretends to reciprocate her affection but actually wants Art, who is torn between love for Reza and loyalty to bestie Judy. Their voices alternate from chapter to chapter, giving the reader distinct perspectives on the ebbs and flows of their tumultuous triad.
As the teens start to fathom Wilde’s lesson about the tragedy of human relationships, another literary love triangle may easily spring to the reader’s mind: the doomed trio of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Fire, demons, and torture are unnecessary in Sartre’s afterlife because, as his trio discovers, “hell is other people.” Eternal agony is simply the punishment of being trapped with the malaise and mania of two other individuals.
To the mix of secret desires that torment Reza, Judy, and Art, Nazemian adds another element: the social privilege each wields. Judy and Art are both white, while Reza is called “ayatollah” by obnoxious bullies at school. Art and Reza enjoy male and class privileges, while Judy enjoys the ability to freely express and pursue her heterosexual lusts. As Art observes, “[h]er heterosexuality gives her the ability to declare crushes openly and without fear. She assumed [Reza] was straight, because why wouldn’t he be? Because the whole world is pretty much straight. I resent that she has a privilege I’ll never have.” As a result of these privileges, the trio risks becoming ensnared in a tangle of mutual resentments.
An intersectional reckoning with privilege is limited, however, by the book’s genre. As a work of aspirational YA fiction, Nazemian cannot offer a conclusion quite as grim as Sartre gives us. Instead, the resolution of his threesome’s conflicts is delivered through a poignant narrative thread: the declining health of Judy’s uncle Stephen. Despite battling AIDS, he is fully committed to organizing sit-ins and acting as a nurturing caretaker of his niece’s close friendship with Art. Stephen even creates “Queer 101” notecards to teach Art about key people and moments in queer history.
Stephen’s courageous fight allows Like a Love Story to serve as its own kind of educational primer on the AIDS movement and its fallen victims and soldiers. Long before the current era of hashtag armchair activism, we witness meetings where strategy is carefully debated and risks assessed. This is not about having one’s photo taken while holding up a sign or wearing a rainbow shirt. As Stephen makes clear, police confrontation was a given, arrest likely. For example, he and other brave ACT UP protestors disrupt a Catholic mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shout down government spokespeople at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) headquarters outside Washington, DC. No matter how melodramatic teen angst can seem, the reality of Stephen’s personal fight, and the larger struggle against the epidemic, grounds the story in the broader context of what is really at stake.
Presiding over this tale of epic protest and adolescent ennui is Madonna, the book’s pop patron saint, beloved by Nazemian himself (he built a “Madonna Room” in his childhood home as “a place of worship”). An obsession with this queer icon is Reza’s first stop on his long, winding march out of the closet. It is a gradual but potent attraction: “All she tells me to do is express myself, and here I am hiding.” Madonna’s music also informs his friendship with Art, forging a cultural bridge between two young people from very distinct backgrounds.
Being an immigrant and knowing high school bullies and parental conflict all too well, I felt, while reading Like a Love Story, that I should sympathize with Reza. But, alas, I didn’t. Sitting in a dining room where all “that can be gold is gold, and anything not made of gold is crystal,” Reza reflects on his first day at a new school, during which a stylish girl flirted with him and the boy who would eventually become his first love befriended him. Still, Reza thinks, “School is terrible.” I can only wish my first days of high school had been this terrible. Rather than a shy immigrant boy, Reza comes across as a simple nebbish, à la Woody Allen’s characters. He casually admits to himself, “I don’t even know if I have a sense of humor.”
The first pages of the book read like a catalog of clichés. How many YA novels, I wondered, must have gay shame as their essential premise? Could I endure 400 pages of awkward teenage banter and tedious romantic overtures? As the popular mental wellness mantra goes, it gets better. The story soon deepens as the characters grapple with real personal pain and serious political issues. It becomes the kind of story that today’s “woke” millennial students, and their teachers, really do need to read.
A personification of the enemy appears briefly in the form of Cardinal John O’Connor, head of the Archdiocese of New York. While scouting St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a future ACT UP protest, Art notes that “Cardinal O’Connor made it his business to take our condoms away, so we can all die.” When I attended Catholic schools in Westchester County, I met O’Connor twice; there’s even a photo out there of me standing next to the opulently dressed homophobe with the stern voice — who looked, as Art astutely observes, “like an extra from a Cecil B. DeMille movie.”
Nazemian’s book comes at a time of both remembrance and erasure. During June 2019, New York City storefronts and apartment windows were draped in rainbows, not just for World Pride and Pride Month, but also for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. But the tone of debates within the local LGBTQ community was a far cry from the battles that Nazemian’s ACT UP protestors were fighting. In one act of civil disobedience, Uncle Stephen and his comrades chain themselves to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange. In a rally at NIH offices, activists deploy rainbow smoke grenades to ensure newspaper coverage. Zoom forward a few decades, and drag pioneers like Lady Bunny are protesting corporate sponsorship of Pride parade floats. RuPaul’s Drag Race racks up Emmys and fills bars and nightclubs for screenings, ads for Pose dominate billboards and bus stops, and camp is celebrated in a massive exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. The times they are a-changin’.
Millennials are enjoying an unprecedented visibility and acceptance of queer culture, the kind that would have stunned Nazemian’s threesome. But would Uncle Stephen rush to create “Queer 101” notecards about how gay producers like Ryan Murphy are dominating the television industry, or how Apple’s gay CEO Tim Cook presides over the world’s largest technology company, or how gay Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband are tearing through the Democratic fundraising circuit? There’s a risk that previously marginalized and even underground subcultures are being co-opted, channeled into movie hits like Call Me by Your Name and pop songs by Troye Sivan. My biggest hope is that young readers who discover Like a Love Story will notice its references to Marsha P. Johnson, Holly Woodlawn, the Cockettes, and Quentin Crisp and be inspired to learn more and maybe even compile their own notecards.
We can easily assume that the adult versions of Judy, Art, and Reza will be progressive and “woke” in their politics, but as teenagers they gamely enjoy their affluence. Uncle Stephen takes Judy and her family on a lavish trip to Paris. Judy then gushes in reporting to Art, “I went everywhere. I ate everything. I wore nothing but Givenchy, darling.” Desperate to pry Art away from his ACT UP comrades, his father bribes him with a $10,000 donation to the organization — homophobia monetized. And in order to buy Madonna paraphernalia, Reza steals from his stepfather, who knowingly lets the thievery happen. But amid all this bourgeois living, the protest at the New York Stock Exchange offers Art a chance to reflect more deeply: “Everything about the energy of this place says that what happens here changes life, for the better if you’re one of the chosen few, but mostly for the worse.” Despite this cutting observation, the book’s plot stays very much within the lane of the chosen few.
Like a Love Story compels us to reflect on how dramatically social norms can change, but it also raises big questions about how and why history evolves as it does and, more crucially, about what should be done to push this evolution forward. In a time of Pride, Pose, and PrEP, what shapes should our militancy take today? How should queer writers and artists join in the fight against the anti-LGBTQ policies of the Trump administration or work to stop ongoing acts of brutal violence against trans individuals, especially trans women of color? While it isn’t necessarily the mission of YA queer fiction to answer these questions, it can unfurl stories about how different those who are asked to rally around the rainbow flag truly are.
The resentments we see pop up among Judy, Reza, and Art hint at a reckoning with how various kinds of privilege operate for all of us. I didn’t have a wealthy father to bribe me into apathy, an uncle to mentor me in subcultural history, or a best friend to accompany me to marches. If the majority of Nazemian’s millennial readers have such resources in their lives, that’s wonderful. As future generations become more tolerant, they will also, one hopes, become more alert to their own privileges and ready to absorb history’s toughest lessons.