Book review: Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell by Tobias Madden

(courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The finding of love, true love is hard enough as it is without ratcheting up the degree of romantic difficulty by a thousand-fold but that’s precisely what our titular guy does in Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell, the second novel from up-and-coming YA writer Tobias Madden.

How exactly does Noah, a gaymer from Ballarat’s in the southern Australian state of Victoria who pines for MagePants69, his also gay dragon-slaying, goblin-vanquishing playing partner in MPRG Spire of Dusk, manage to make the attaining of the young man of his dreams so fiendishly and messily over-involved that not only does the path of true love not run smooth but it careens off the track, up a tree where it proceeds to fall into a tar pit of La Brea-like proportions?

That is the million-dollar question and it’s one that Madden has a great deal of fun with while simultaneously and with great empathy and insight, taking us into the world of a wounded seventeen-year-old guy who is still reclusively smarting from having his social world explode three years earlier.

What is key here, and remains throughout this emotionally-weighted delight of a book, is that Noah is in love with his game-playing buddy who for online safety reasons and a protective parent, is forbidden from ever meeting up in real life with Noah.

There’s is a relationship of digital bits and fun, flirtatious conversations in a virtual tavern after a bout of fantasy bad guy-despatching, and is pretty much all Noah, who is close to his sister Charly but fractious with his narcissistic mother Rose and near invisible to his neurosurgeon dad, has gone for him until …

MadePants69 <you still there? you haven’t deserted me me, have you?>

A goofy grin spreads across my face as I type my reply.

‘Me?’ my Warrior says. ‘Desert the fairest Bard in the Three Kingdoms? You think so little of me, m’lady.’

The Half-Elf winks. ‘You should consider yourself lucky that I think of you at all.’

‘Shall we continue our quest?’

‘Continue, we shall, m’lord.’

And just like that … I don’t feel so alone anymore.

I don’t feel alone at all. (P. 10)

Well, until he discovers there is a way to meet MagePants69 IRL without letting on that he knows him online, which will only involve, and it’s here that Noah massively underestimates how complicated life can get, lying to everyone close to him, keeping his online and IRL lives completely and utterly separate – despite the fact that he and MagePants69 are present in both spheres, and, here’s the fun bit, singing and dancing in front of an audience.

I mean, how bad could that all be and surely it’ll be a walk in the park to keep all his lies straight in his big gay endeavour and win the heart of his beloved who will, naturally forgive all the lies in the fact of a love so big and so fabulously gay that nothing can derail it.

It’s all so gloriously naïve and delightfully optimistic and honestly, even though you know Noah is racing, with unthinking Thelma and Louise velocity towards a great big cliff of romantic messiness over which he will undoubtedly tumble with little to no grace, and possibly no boyfriend in the aftermath, you take huge joy in this socially walled away guy, with some significant trauma in his past and reality-scarring bullying in his present, finally seeing his life come back alive in heart-soaring technicolour.

Tobias Madden (image courtesy Penguin Books Australua (c) Kate Williams)

Noah Mitchell is a delight.

Yes, he graphically misjudges what lying and deception can do to someone even when they really love you a lot, and he doesn’t yet fully appreciate that the people around him have a whole lot more going on that he knows, and his ability to sort good ideas from bad warped by the truth blowing up in his face a few years earlier BUT he is a good, kindhearted guy with stars in his eyes, and who doesn’t want that to be rewarded with the kind of love of which gay legends are made?

You really want that for him, also you suspect because he is sweetly, humanly flawed, just like the rest of us, captive to cloud nine-resident romantic dreams but bargain basement execution, which makes his quest, and his eventual plight so relatable to anyone with a beating heart.

We have all aimed high and struck low, and so Noah’s story, which is told by Madden with sage understanding and a beautiful empathy for fallible humanity, is one which really strikes a chord, and which anyone who’s ever set out to win someone’s heart and succeeded, only to have it all fall apart, will identify with.

You cringe when errors of judgement piled up hard against each other, and you wince at the self-rationalisation which you likely know form personal experience will likely end in tears but you want someone this aspirationally wonderful and so keen to carpe diem the queer love out of everything to get it all, despite all the mounting mistakes and flawed judgement.

‘You do have to factor Elis’ feelings into this, even if it doesn’t seem fair. I mean, is it worth making him feel super uncomfortable so you can go to the gym with this guy, when you could easily just work out with someone else?’

I sigh into the phone. ‘ So, what exactly is the moral of the story, then?’

‘Moral of the story is: you need to be honest with Eli from now on. Completely honest. He won’t trust you if he can tell you’re hiding something.’

Awesome. That’s just perfect. (P. 219)

Being a rom-com, it’s pretty much guaranteed it will all come unstuck at some point, but even here, Madden gets gloriously creative, sidestepping the expected outcomes in favour of some really thoughtful, poignant storytelling that will surprise you simply because it doesn’t play the game quite how you expect.

In short, while Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell embraces all the tropes and clichés you want and need in a YA rom-com from near-instant true love to parents who don’t get it to challenges to comfort zones aplenty, it does so in ways that is refreshingly heartfelt and interesting, tenderly exploring what it’s like to want love so badly with someone so perfect that you might just imperil the whole grand romantic quest.

Madden, who brings regional community theatre to warm, rich life, and the life of a teenage boy’s quest for love, both romantic and yes, familial too alive in ways affectingly true, gets how we don’t always manage to deliver on our grand schemes and soaring ambitions but that that doesn’t make us bad, stupid, hateful or awful, because Noah is none of things.

It just makes us, and Noah pertinently, very, very human, hilariously and huggably relatable and perfectly realised protagonist in a book with all the feels, all the meaningfulness and all the messy mix that life brings of hope and crushing disappointment, joy and sadness, and possibility and deadends.

Take a Bow, Noah Mitchell is a true YA rom-com gem that that beautifully and affectingly takes us into the world of one young gay man who’s had hurt of all kinds and who simply want to find unconditional love and the heart of cute, thoughtful, Cats-loving fellow gaymer, but ight have to learn some hard lessons on the way to his eventual happy-ever-after, singing and dancing and all.

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