It was Lysander, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream who remarked that “The course of true love never did run smooth” but it’s Ollie, the protagonist from Sophie Gonzales’s passionately heartfelt tale of young gay love, Only Mostly Devastated, who can issue a hearty “Amen!” some 400 years after the play was first written.
The themes of the play, like so much the great Bard wrote, are eternal, something Ollie knows only too well after his all-in summer fling with the kind, sweet, caring and funny Will, which was everything a newly out young man could hope and dream for, and if there’s one thing Ollie does beautifully it is hope and dream, turns out to not be so bright and shiny in the real world of high school.
Thinking he’s heading back home to California after spending time with his mum and dad at his aunt Linda and uncle Roy’s place in North Carolina, where they live with seven-year-old Crista and three-year-old Dylan, Ollie finds himself staying permanently, well permanently enough for now, far from home and enticingly close to Will who, it turns out, attends the school Ollie is now enrolled in.
Talk about hopes and dreams coming true!
Ollie doesn’t have to wonder what the next chapter of their all-encompassing love affair looks like – he can live it, as he and Will lock eyes in the school’s crowded hallways, reunite with a kiss so true that it’s talked about down through the eons, and go to a life so perfectly romantic that gushing poems and overwrought pop songs will never do it justice.
Wait just a minute though; it turns out that Will is not out, not even a little bit and as Ollie makes new friends including the supportive if challenging trio of Juliette, Niamh and Lara, he finds out that Will of the Summer Lake Love Affair is actually Will the Class Clowning, Oneliner-Quipping Basketball Star who is, as the book blurb sagely notes, “a bit of a jerk.”
“The world fell silent.
It was him.
We stared at each other in dumb shock. It was hard to tell which of us was the deer, and which was the headlight.” (P. 33)
That sound you hear is Ollie’s heart breaking into a thousand or more jangly pieces, all of them crashing to the floor, never to be seen again as they swept away into the ceaseless, rapacious jaws of unattractive reality.
Enough complication for you yet? There’s more because it turns out Will likes, nay maybe loves Ollie still BUT, and it’s a “but” so big you’ll need the mother of all deep pylon, suspension bridges to get across it, he cares about what his fellow basketballs players, classmates and parents think more, something that dooms Ollie to a romantic boom-bust cycle that doesn’t do his young, hopeful heart much good at all.
Capturing the high HIGHS and low LOWS of true love with empathy, honesty and understanding, Only Mostly Devastated is a heart-on-the-sleeve that rings with the kind of authenticity you wish would suffuse more books of this ilk.
It is warm, witty, heartbreaking and heart soaring in equal measure, a book which celebrates how wondrous and affirming love can be but knows all too well that it grows and dies, and maybe grows again, in a world with enough complications to sink a Cupid-powered battleship.
Life is hard, love is hard, and while those of us of a certain older age ruefully know that all too well, and occasionally plan accordingly, people like Ollie, who at seventeen is on the cusp of his senior year of high school, looming college, are still figuring this out and not always getting it right.
Which is fine; life is all about seeing what works and what doesn’t and seeing if you can do it differently next time but as Only Mostly Devastated moves through its witty, funny and at times tearful narrative – a big looming family tragedy threatens throughout to cast all of Ollie’s troubles in an entirely different and life-changing light – Ollie begins to wonder if he is really learning the lessons of love all that well.
After all, he keeps offering his heart to Will, who seems to accept it and hand Ollie back his own, only to have it stomped on a little later on when Will begins to worry someone might discover he plays for another team altogether.
Gonzales, who writes with imaginative good humour and a turn of phrase so clever you will feel compelled to highlight all the best bits, and they are plentiful, captures both what it is like to ache with love’s first deep longing and how it feels to be trapped inside your own sexual reality and yet feel you cannot be honest about it with anyone else.
I ignored him.
‘I’m so sorry. I feel really awful about last night.’
Not awful enough to call me, or pull me aside and explain, or not to do it in the first place.
‘Can we talk about this later?’
I ignored him.” (P. 204)
Coming out is hard, very hard, but it is also immensely rewarding as you claim your authentic self in a public space and live life you always imagined it should be, and acknowledging that, Gonzales also assents to the fact that young love, any love really but young love especially, is intensely hard to, all surging extremes of emotion that don’t always find a stable or secure resting place.
It all makes a huge deal of sense in Gonzales emotionally intuitive hands, and as you read through Only Mostly Devastated, you appreciate again how often we make the worst mistakes for what feel like the very best of reasons, something that only begins to become apparent when you really live life and learn from it, as Ollie does during what is the biggest, most exciting and disruptive year of his young life, best uncle in the world, hopefully best boyfriend in the world life.
Always sweet and endearing, funny and cute, insightful and searingly honest at times, Only Mostly Devastated is young love and life writ large, peppered with witty turns of phrase, friendship so hard-won and true that it’s worth treasuring forever, and a love between two sweet, hopeful young men that reminds us all that love is not only love, no matter your sexuality, but that it can take an awful lot of hard knocks and deep disappointments and still keep surging forward because such is the nature of the starry-eyed beast.
With characters so heartfelt and vibrant you feel like you could step onto the page to say “hello”, and scenes alternately so raw and sad or funny and playful or downright painful and disappointing, Only Mostly Devastated is a damn near perfect book, one that captures the vibrancy of love in all its complicated glory but which understands too that getting to the finish line, which let’s face it never really arrives in life and love (save for the very end of things which the book also heartbreakingly but honestly addresses), isn’t easy and may require a lot more learning and understanding until you get, hopefully, what you have hoped and dreamed for all along.