Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye
Published: Penguin Random House Children’s UK (May 21st 2020)
Genre: young adult; contemporary
Rep: mixed-race gay mc, mlm li, gay side character, Indian side character
Tw: homophobia, bullying, fights, outing, another very public outing, unsupportive parents
Rating: 1/5 🍑
In a word, in a phrase? It’s a preachy bulshit. If you’re looking for a light, cute gay romcom, you should keep looking. This book is not it.
The thing we can all agree on is that stories need angst to actually make sense. You can call it conflict or whatever else, but something in the plot has to stop working for a while, for the whole book to start working in the end. The problem is, the cause for that can’t feel like bordeline tragedy porn, can’t feel like kicking one already down, repeatedly.
That’s what Date Me, Bryson Keller failed to grasp.
Kai, the mc, is a closeted gay high school senior. So far so good. He’s terrified of coming out to his parents, mostly because his mom is Catholic and very religious. Still fine. He never came out to his two best friends he met at the beginning of high school, because when he was thirteen he came out to his best friend at the time and was ghosted. Kind of a lot for a kid not to have a single person he’s comfortable with, but that is sometimes our reality.
But then, what else happens to this kid? He gets outed, multiple times, including to his mother and to his whole school. His mother turns out to be as homophobic as you would expect from a straight Catholic, and needs literal days to come around. Both he and his boyfriend get in fights with homophobes.
Oh, and all this in the span of three days. (The whole books takes two weeks, so we don’t have a lot of time.)
You could say, well this still happens to LGBT youth! To which I say, you’re totally right! But it’s a matter of choosing how to write about those things. Books are not real life, they need to have some balance. If you have unsupportive parents, consider having another supportive figure in mc’s life from the start. If you decide to out your mc, stop to think why are you doing that. Is it solely to show the few characters who are better than the asshole who did the outing? Is it so those characters can make a speech about how bad outing someone is?
All the bad things that happen in Date Me, Bryson Keller feel like they only happen so that someone can condemn them. (Also so that Kai feels more lonely.) I said the book is a preachy bulshit and that is exactly what I meant. No opportunity is wasted to include a paragraph or two of someone defending an idea, and all of them have the subtlety of getting pummeled in the head with a sledgehammer. It’s also present in the narrative at other times, when Kai explains to readers how difficult it is to be a gay teen and how he hates it because love is love.
Throughout the whole book Kai keeps asking himself if Bryson can possibly be gay, too. That is because so far, during the dare, Bryson only dated girls, but he also held Kai’s hand without being asked. Not once does Kai consider that Bryson might be bisexual or pansexual. Over 300 pages and Kai keeps thinking of sexuality as a binary: you’re either gay or you’re straight.
He does that to other people as well. He has a crush on a boy whom he never really talked to and knows nothing about. (Which is the nature of crushes, of course.) And the whole time he just assumes that said boy is straight. Because straight is the default and people can ever only be straight or gay, right? He actually gets called out on it, but then just keeps doing it for the rest of the book.
The word “bi” is used once (!) in the whole book. Not even bisexual, just bi. And not as an actual label someone decided on, just thrown in as a possibility in a stressful situation and never brought up again. Not all of us use labels, obviously, but Kai is very adamant about using “gay” to describe himself (to the point where he’s afraid kids will only see him as “the gay one”, instead of his actual personality) and yet his love interest never gets to have a label. It would be different if it was actually addressed by the narrative, but alas.
Having a personality is actually another problem in this book. No one really feels… like they do… It’s more like a few traits slapped together to make a shape of person. A quirk here or there, because those are supposed to make characters more believable. And that’s the best case scenario. The worst? Making a character a racist, homophobic caricature because the author needs them to do something shitty to move the plot forward. Meet Shannon. Meet Dustin.
Kai is obviously the best example of that, though. We’re told (by him, since the book is written in first person pov) that he’s shy, but then we literally not once get to see it. We’re told he’s not popular, but his two best friends are part of the popular crowd and he gets invited to parties thrown by those kids, and the most popular guy in school knows his name. It’s impossible to pin down anything actually real about Kai. (Apart from the fact that he’s a pretentious asshole, like a lot of teenagers are, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t actually author’s intention.)
All this to say that Date Me, Bryson Keller is just very poorly written. Not only in terms of nonexistent characterisation, but also the style itself. The dialogues read like the author never heard teens talk before in his life. The descriptions are overly detailed, even in places that don’t really need any descriptions at all. There are constant repetitions of words, phrases and ideas, usually in space of a few pages. As if the author wasn’t sure we got what he was going for the first five times.
The tone is very preachy, as mentioned before, but also basic and not nuanced at all; sounds more like an adult telling the story. The most important part of writing YA books is nailing down teens’ voice and this book failed at that miserably. It’s cringy and embarrassing, and takes a lot of effort to get through. That Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme? That’s exactly this book’s energy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some cute parts in this novel! Kai and Bryson go on dates, have fun, get overly romantic & sappy. It’s sweet at times! Bryson’s mom and sister are very cool with him not being straight (in stark contrast to Kai’s mom). It’s not all bad.
Is it worth to read the whole thing for a few cute scenes, though? Well.
At the end of the day Date Me, Bryson Keller feels like it was written not so much for closeted gay kids who might need something good and shiny in their life, but for the straight audience to teach them a lesson. I thought we’re past that.
What If It’s Us meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in this upbeat and heartfelt boy-meets-boy romance that feels like a modern twist on a ’90s rom-com!
Everyone knows about the dare: Each week, Bryson Keller must date someone new–the first person to ask him out on Monday morning. Few think Bryson can do it. He may be the king of Fairvale Academy, but he’s never really dated before.
Until a boy asks him out, and everything changes.
Kai Sheridan didn’t expect Bryson to say yes. So when Bryson agrees to secretly go out with him, Kai is thrown for a loop. But as the days go by, he discovers there’s more to Bryson beneath the surface, and dating him begins to feel less like an act and more like the real thing. Kai knows how the story of a gay boy liking someone straight ends. With his heart on the line, he’s awkwardly trying to navigate senior year at school, at home, and in the closet, all while grappling with the fact that this “relationship” will last only five days. After all, Bryson Keller is popular, good-looking, and straight . . . right?
Kevin van Whye delivers an uplifting and poignant coming-out love story that will have readers rooting for these two teens to share their hearts with the world–and with each other.
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