‘Ben is 17, gay, and happy most of the time. He’s finished school and is on track to a great career – all that’s missing is falling in love. Romantic but a little naive, Ben meets Peter online. But the guy of his dreams is still in the closet, his pal Soda is suddenly more interested in nights in than nights out, and his old school bully seems determined to ruin his life. Then, on top of everything else, his best friend, Chelsea, goes AWOL – just when he needs her most.
Everything is changing and Ben’s not sure what to do. But change brings all kinds of possibilities. You just have to be ready to see them.
Can Ben navigate the pitfalls of modern gay dating, with all its highly sexualised expectations, and be true to himself?’
What Love Looks Like follows Ben, who has just finished school and wants to train as a teacher, and seems certain what he wants from life, but not entirely secure in his upcoming adulthood or how to go about his romantic life. He’s a little idealistic and often makes the assumption that others will want the same things as he does from a relationship, which is less just the sexual side of things (which he often claims not to be completely ready for) and more a romantic connection, but, unfortunately for him, the connection he makes with Peter is one that only serves to make him feel bad about himself.
While Ben is out, Peter remains in the closet – and not only that, but all too willing to freely air his opinion on what he sees as the ‘wrong’ ways to be gay and how men should and shouldn’t behave in public, down to judging Ben himself and making repeated comments about what he wears and how he interacts with him in-front of others. Despite this, Peter believes that he can and should still get what he wants, which is contained purely to the physical, and seems utterly oblivious to the hateful things he says about other gay men, insisting that he’s different and not like them; that he’s a regular bloke who just happens to like men. Naively, Ben seems to think that Peter can’t possibly mean what he says, unsure what he should do when faced with his internalised homophobia, and lets him cross lines because he wants to make things work and appears to what to think the best of people. While Ben appears to understand that how he approaches his sexuality is not how everyone does, Peter is aggressive in his judgements and in his demands, and is frankly quite predatory in his approach, especially given that he doesn’t understand what no means or that he makes Ben uncomfortable.
For much of the book, Ben suffers discrimination from his peers, who find it necessary to continuously comment about his sexuality and make it clear that they don’t approve, when it’s absolutely none of their business. He’s bullied not only by them, but by other members of the public, and discriminatory behaviour even starts to become an issue in his work environment, where young children pick up on the language and less than tolerant behaviour of adults. What’s highlighted here is how easily children take on the views of their parents and those around them, creating prejudice that doesn’t naturally exist in young people. Combined with the religious views of where he lives and the ongoing struggles for gay rights and acceptance, Ben finds himself in the centre of a storm created by the views of those around him and not owing to anything that he has done wrong. For the most part, the characters in the novel who display (or who are indicated to have displayed) intolerance of the LGBTQ community and other prejudices, such as towards different races, make progress and do change by the book’s conclusion, ending the story on a hopeful note. How and why some of them change their attitudes is a little glossed over and rushed, especially in the case of Ben’s particular bully, but that there is more acceptance by the novel’s end is, in my opinion, more significant to focus on.
I don’t want to give any more specific spoilers, but I will say that I loved the resolution of Chelsea’s story and all that accompanies it. In a similar vein, I loved Ben’s family and how supportive they are of him; his home really feels like a safe space, with kind, supportive parents and it was lovely to see that he had this shelter from a less understanding outside world. Much of what Ben experiences outside his house has roots in the religious and political history of Ireland, and though good progress has been made, it’s important to be aware that there is still much of a journey to be had in terms of greater tolerance and acceptance.
What Love Looks Like is out on 15th March, from The O’Brien Press, who kindly sent me a copy for review! Thank you!