A Cape Cod, Massachusetts, teenager deals with his tortured uncertainty about his sexual orientation in this YA novel.
In 2013, James Howard Wallace has just turned 18, and he’s agonizing over the fact that he still hasn’t lost his virginity. He has a seemingly willing partner in Liz, a sweet 18-year-old girl whom he’s known and admired since childhood. The problem, though, is that James has long had a secret desire for men, and he fears, in his own argot, that he isn’t “sterling”—that is, straight. (The book’s title is also James’ invention: his notion of a place in the world where everything is all right and he feels normal.) James finds a compassionate mentor in neighbor Pat Baxter, an antique bookshop owner, while working a seasonal job. Pat gently tells James of his own history of marriage and divorce—a cautionary tale of what can happen when one tries to live a lie. The store owner is also the catalyst for reuniting James with Nathaniel Flederbaum, whom the younger, less thoughtful James bullied in middle school. James’ long-standing guilt over this, and his wish to make things right, is complicated by his current attraction to the strapping Nate. Pratt (Looking After Joey, 2017, etc.) organically weaves in other life choices and changes, such as selecting a university, losing a beloved great-aunt, and making a decision about Liz, into the story of James’ maturation. The author delivers a LGBT coming-of-age novel that, for the most part, preserves the messiness and uncertainty of youth in the clever, funny voice of its protagonist. Readers may be particularly drawn to the conflicted, questioning James of the earlier chapters. Expected moments of coming-out drama are mitigated by family members’ tolerance and understanding. Overall, the quirky complexity of the various characters is appealing, as is the unusual New England setting.
An intelligent, sensitive take on a coming-out story, with locales and characters that rise above the familiar.