Review by Ahmad Danny Ramadan
Blazer + Bray, HarperCollins Publishers, 4 June 2019
413 pages, paperback, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-06283-936-7
Ages 13+, Grades 8-12
Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary Realism, LGBTQ+
If they’re the lucky ones for having had love, then what does that make me? Will I ever have love? Probably not, because I’m a self-pitying narcissist. Look at me. I’m listening to two beautiful, noble, HOLY men who are not only facing death themselves, but also lost the loves of their lives, and what am I thinking about? Myself.
Two men in business suits walk past us. They look at Stephen and Jimmy with sneers that remind me of my father. I press my camera, hear it click, feel it capture the violence of their scrutiny. Stephen and Jimmy should be revered and worshiped, not feared and derided. They are the saints that belong in God’s cathedrals, they’re the icons that belong on the posters on our walls. And that’s when I have an idea. A new project. I’ll photograph them, and show the world how beautiful they are. I’ll pose them as saints, recreate old religious iconography. No, they’re too good for that. I’ll light the photographs like the old Hollywood photos of George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull, all haze and gauze and smoke and shadow. I’ll make the world see what I see, that these men and women are mythic, larger than life. Maybe I won’t have love, but I’ll have something else. A purpose. Love would. Just distract me anyway. Rage will be way more productive.
I make a choice. I choose rage.
Abdi Nazemian wants to canonize his characters; he wants to give them their rightful status as saints. What’s a saint without suffering, though? How can you be a saint if you did not levitate over the pains of your existence towards a higher power? In this case, the saints are those navigating their own lives and those of others during the peak of the AIDS crisis in New York within the LGBTQ+ community, and the higher power is Madonna – the young singer who is starting a revolution of self-love and acceptance, breaking free from the heavy and conservative social constructs at the end of the Ronald Reagan era.
Like a Love Story is narrated by three characters and includes postcards written by a fourth about life in New York as a queer person. The main story follows Reza, a Brown teen who arrived in New York in the late 80s by the way of Tehran and Toronto. He is struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation. He also carries the weight of the immigrant experience and its isolation and loneliness. That’s when he meets both Art and Judy; like him, these two characters are outcasts in their own ways. The two other characters carry the weight of narrating Reza’s story with him from their own perspectives.
Like a Love Story is a book that’s not about a love story per se. It follows the triangle of love between Reza, Art, and Judy. Reza is repressing his sexual attraction to Art while dating Judy. Art is unsure of Reza’s true intentions but also enraged by the way the world is responding to last ticking minutes of life left to his mentor and friend Stephen who dying of AIDS. Finally, Judy, an aspiring fashion designer who finds love for the first time with the closeted Reza, is unaware of his attraction to Art. Judy is self-deprecating, especially in her relationship to her overweight body. She also is Stephen’s loving niece, and her uncle accepts her for who she is as a complete person, body and all.
The stand out characters of this novel are not the three main characters as much as the many men they run into in the queer scene in New York, manifested in Stephen, the mentor and uncle of these three. Stephen shed the expectations of the society around him when he knew his fate was sealed upon his diagnosis. At one point, Reza asks Art why many Madonna songs start with “like …” ala Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer. Art explains that because Madonna is aware that her music is not about praying or virginity, but a feeling that is similar to those things. This also explains how Stephen is living something like a life, where he eats and breathes and wears fur coats, and remembers his dead lover – but it’s not really life itself. His existence is not mundane anymore, it’s elevated through his experiences, activism, hard work, losses of others around him and hopes for a future where AIDS is no longer a death sentence.
This is a book about characters that break away from the stereotype of what the AIDS crisis did to the queer community. They soar in the face of the disease and find their true identities through resilience and empowerment when their diagnoses leave them with nothing to lose and everything to gain by being themselves.
As a queer man myself, this book resonated strongly and felt truthful to my own experiences. It’s a powerful read for teens who grew up in a world with no context about what the AIDS crisis was like in the 80s and the 90s. This is a part of history they might never learn in school.
Throughout the first half of the book, Reza lied to his new friends, broke both of their hearts, and acted in a horribly selfish way, but his actions felt quite truthful to the experience of a closeted person of colour. I instantly forgave him. And by the end of the book, I was cheering for the unfolding of events–the ending felt like a vindication. It felt like a prayer that calms, a prayer that fulfills.
Ahmad Danny Ramadan is an award-winning Syrian-Canadian author. His novel, The Clothesline Swing, continues its success, and is translated to multiple languages. He is currently working on his next novel, The Foghorn Echoes, and a collection of short fiction, The Syrian Survival Notebook. His children book, Salma the Syrian Chef is forthcoming in 2020.