Honestly Ben, by Bill Konigsberg
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBTQIA
“We change. We keep changing. We won’t be finished products ’til the day we die.”
This review contains spoilers, and is also a bit personal. Please read with caution!
Openly Straight, this book’s prequel, is very special to me. It’s the book that helped me realize that I was attracted to girls; it is essentially the book that helped me come out to myself. Eventually this escalated to where I’m at today. Without Openly Straight, I don’t think I ever would’ve been honest with myself about my true feelings.
It was not a perfect book, but in a bittersweet way, I liked how it ended. I enjoyed Rafe and Ben’s relationship and wanted them to have their happily-ever-after, but the fight and loss of friendship was more realistic. It felt finite. So all it took was one look at Honestly Ben for me to know what was going to happen.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a bad book, just the same as Openly Straight wasn’t. I like the way Bill Konigsberg writes, I like how he characterizes, and I like the silly and sometimes extremely dark humor that he sprinkles in.
“I feel like we already have a truce,” I said. “I’ve placed my imaginary Maginot Line, and there is an uneasy accord along the Western Front.”
“Oh, Ben,” he said, and the gentleness of his voice made me look away. “Wait. Am I Hitler in that analogy?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. “I guess.”
“So you made the Jewish guy Hitler. Nice.”
I also agree with basically everything this book is about: agape, or unconditional love. It’s a type of love that goes beyond anything physical or material, and can relate to anyone, paternal, sexual, emotional, etc. I strongly believe in this type of love; I don’t believe in soul mates, exactly, but that there is someone, or possibly multiple someones, that are out there and are so right for you that things like sexuality and gender don’t matter anymore. As Ben says repeatedly, he is not gay or bisexual, but he still loves Rafe despite the fact that he’s a boy. A lot of readers seem to be upset by this and claim that this is misrepresenting bisexuality, and as someone who was formally bisexual, I can understand their point of view – but at the same time, I get what Konigsberg was trying to say. I don’t think he was trying to be biphobic; I think he was trying to show that people love who they love without restriction. That is agape.
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
My problems with this book reside in other things, the first and foremost being that Honestly Ben feels like an excuse to give Rafe and Ben the HEA that they were deprived of in Openly Straight. Otherwise I can think of no other significance. There isn’t even a change of scenery; the book literally dumps you in where the previous left off. The result is that I felt like I was reading the exact same book. I would’ve liked something a little different: a new place a few years from now, maybe, but something to give it a change of scene.
This relates to the other thing, which is the advocacy. I want to mention that I have absolutely no opposition about advocacy in books whatsoever, because I think that’ll be the generated idea. I love it. This book touches various subjects, including misogyny, anti-war, gender identity, and of course homosexuality. These topics are very important to me, but when I see them in a book, I want them to be integrated in a way that flows with the plot. I want it to still be a book. Instead, all that it does is prop the book up for its lack of substance. I kept feeling like I’d fallen inside of Tumblr.
I felt the same way about David Levithan’s Every Day. I appreciate and support these things when they are discussed in books, but I don’t want it to be everything. I am still a reader; I still want to be entertained.
A good book all in all, but I wish that it had varied from its predecessor. If there are ever going to be any future books about Ben and Rafe, I’d like them to be experiencing new situations instead of dealing with old ones.