Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Goodreads Description: Part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, part Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Adam Silvera's extraordinary debut confronts race, class, and sexuality during one charged near-future summer in the Bronx.
The Leteo Institute's revolutionary memory-relief procedure seems too good to be true to Aaron Soto - miracle cure-alls don't tend to pop up in the Bronx projects. But Aaron can't forget how he's grown up poor or how his friends aren't always there for him. Like after his father committed suicide in their one bedroom apartment. Aaron has the support of his patient girlfriend, if not necessarily his distant brother and overworked mother, but it's not enough.
Then Thomas shows up. He has a sweet movie-watching setup on his roof, and he doesn't mind Aaron's obsession with a popular fantasy series. There are nicknames, inside jokes. Most importantly, Thomas doesn't mind talking about Aaron's past. But Aaron's newfound happiness isn't welcome on his block. Since he's can't stay away from Thomas or suddenly stop being gay, Aaron must turn to Leteo to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he is.
My Review: "Now we know the procedure is 100 percent real and 0 percent bullshit because one of our own has gone through it."
Explaining books like More Happy Than Not can seem like a Herculean task. It's a book about everything and nothing, about the complexities and chaos of humanity interwoven with the daily banality that drives boredom into your skull like rail spikes. Somewhere between chatting with his mom and games of manhunt with the guys lies this beautiful picture of firsts, from first love to first kiss to first discovering who you really are, which all folds together to paint us a picture of Aaron Soto's life.
After his father's suicide, Aaron is left adrift. He has Genevieve, his girlfriend, who has stuck by him through the struggle, his Mom, who means well, and his brother, who never looks up from his video games, but at least he's there. Then Aaron meets Thomas, a kid from the next block over who sees things in a way Aaron never considered. As they grow closer, Aaron must come to face truths about himself: that he doesn't miss his girlfriend of over a year like he misses Thomas, that he can't stop staring when Thomas takes off his shirt, and that he's hopelessly in love with his new best friend. Being gay would disrupt everything he's tried so hard to build up since his father's suicide, so he turns to the Leteo Institute, which can help him forget his sexuality. But can erasing parts of himself really work in the long run? Or will the procedure threaten to tear Aaron's life-- and his mind-- apart?
After finishing this book, the only metaphor I could think of to describe it was a roller coaster with only one drop. The anticipation builds as you settle into the seat and it slowly starts the ascension. The view is beautiful. This is how the book begins. We see Aaron, living in poverty but happy nonetheless, still reeling from his father's suicide, with a girlfriend at his side and a gaggle of neighborhood friends. Then Thomas enters the picture, and the view just gets better. The budding romance, the slow realization of sexuality, and the feelings of real love blooming all flows as expected and loops the reader into a false sense of security. We think we know how the rest of the book will play out. Then before we know it, the roller coaster drops and we head down, down, and the rush is amazing but there's the realization that you're not coming back up, and the book heads down, down, down, until you crash at the bottom into a beautiful emotional wreckage.
Plot? Characters? Tension? Writing? Give them all a ten out of ten. The writing is so well-done that it's sometimes hard to stay objective as a reviewer and not get completely absorbed into the story. Silvera especially has a flair for foreshadowing, which comes into play all throughout the book. It's used throughout in small and big ways and leaves the reader constantly looking back, reevaluating the dual meanings in every line. I was particularly taken with one of the first lines, the one at the beginning of this review, which takes on a whole new meaning about half-way through.
Too often in books, characters can have their negative traits washed away to appear "good" in an attempt to create a character that is likable and sympathetic. Silvera didn't hesitate to risk "likability" for raw relatability, which sounds similar, though likability tends to be sugar coated while relatability tends to show us our flaws as well as our strengths reflected in a character. There are several instances of characters "behaving badly" throughout the book; Aaron cheats on his girlfriend, a love interest cheats on his girlfriend, Aaron obsessively denies Thomas's sexuality and assumes he knows what others are feeling. I was initially a little turned off by the cheating, especially as I started the book very aware that Aaron had a long term girlfriend and the potential for cheating was rife. I've been burned hard before by books that have a character cheating on their SO while it's portrayed as okay because of "true love" or because the SO was a dick once. I was disappointed to see Aaron cheating, but the way it was presented made this an opportunity for character growth as opposed to excusing poor behaviour. Both through dialogue of other characters and through Aaron's narrative, it's asserted that the cheating was completely wrong and fully Aaron's fault. What's nice is there's no speech from Mom to explain why cheating is bad, instead we get glimpses that allows the reader to come to that conclusion on their own. That's what really makes these negative characteristics shine: Silvera shows the reality of how and why we act that way, and then layers in the slow realization of the consequences from it. We're not told that cheating is bad, instead we see how it affects those Aaron cares about. Plus it allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, which is crucial, especially for YA fiction.
Throughout the book, Aaron stresses in his narrative that he knows Thomas' sexuality, that he knows Thomas is "acting straight," and will come to his senses eventually, allowing them to be together. It was a little jarring at first, especially because making this assumption is pretty unflattering for Aaron. As the book goes on, he continues to stress that he knows what Thomas likes, despite being provided with evidence of the contrary. By the end of the book, he comes to accept the reality, and by doing so comes to accept himself, for Aaron's assumptions about Thomas' sexuality are really just him projecting his issues onto Thomas. He can be certain about Thomas' sexuality because he's so uncertain about his own. Deep down, he knows he's 100% gay, but because of his circumstances he cannot consciously admit it. It's why, just before he admits it within narrative, he tries to rationalize in ways that become ridiculous in their attempt to avoid the obvious. He literally does anything he can to avoid the truth, to the point that when he does admit his sexuality, he immediately begins to project everything onto Thomas, seeing him as the one whose gay but straight passing. By projecting his situation onto Thomas, he can safely analyze the situation and think about what he should do (stop hiding his homosexuality and just be true to himself). As well, this rings so true to the experiences many LGBT kids have growing up: that forceful wishing that the person you loved would realize they were gay too (or just returned your feelings) so you could both have that Happily Ever After. It's something real and tragic and seeing it on page brought me right back to being 13 years old again.
The book perfectly captures the pain and hope of adolescence. It literally made me feel like a teenager again because of how incredibly well-crafted the narrative was. As mentioned above, Aaron makes assumptions about Thomas' sexuality, uses his girlfriend as a cover, falls in love with his best friend, hopes when there's no reason left to hope that his crush might love him back, and when things don't fall into a fairy tale, he struggles to find his happiness with people who can't give him the whole of what he needs. All of this done with an unapologetic teenage thought-process that mirrored exactly how I thought as a teenager. Aaron Soto actually thinks like a teenager, not an adult pretending to be a teenager. The cherry on top of that realistic teen experiences were things like Gen and Thomas hanging out together, the way Collin just isn't who Aaron needs him to be, and the empty spaces where no one asks what's wrong, which really brought home that isolating teenager experience. Life isn't Disney as a teen, and boy, does this book remind us of that.
The book can come across as heavy, especially because a major part of the book involves Aaron wanting to erase the part of his brain that's gay. It's a risky topic to play with, but Silvera handles it perfectly, and without having Aaron sit down and say, "I'm okay with me!" the narrative manages to show that being true to yourself is the key that opens the door to happiness. One of the hallmark's of this book is its ability to say something without outright saying it, which is a true testament to Silvera's incredible writing skills. Bring on the books, Silvera! This is one author you'll want to watch.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. A beautiful tale of firsts, of a boy coming to grips with who he is, of finding happiness through the shards of tragedy.