Title: Way to Go
Author: Tom Ryan
Publisher: Orca Books
Other Reviews for This Author: None
I find it hard to truly enjoy the basic coming out story anymore. It's hard to find an author that has a different voice or take on the subject - it's something filled with angst and a lot of issue, and anyone's attempts at coming to terms with their sexuality are bound to come with some level of it. I wasn't entirely certain of Way to Go's premise until I got the book and picked it up, and was initially dismayed at realizing that it would be just that - a coming out story set in the 1990's. While Way to Go did not blow my mind with its take on the coming out storyline, it did infuse a different narrative voice into the mix that made it an enjoyable read.
Danny lives in a small tourist town in Nova Scotia. It's the early 1990's and he's just getting through high school, not really knowing where he is in life. He's flanked by two good friends of his: Kierce, a know-it-all who attempts to be cooler than he is, and Jay, who isn't worried about much despite a series of bad grades the past school year. His friends have always been there for him, but they seem to know themselves better than he does. Danny doesn't even truly understand his sexuality. He believes that he may like guys, but he can't help but be unsure about it. After all, he does live in a conservative small town that doesn't promise acceptance for a kid like him.
Being lost in self can be dangerous, and Danny soon gets caught up in his teenage confusion while partying with his friends. Underage drinking and irresponsibility lead him to getting caught - luckily given a pass by the cop in question, but not so luckily getting in trouble with his mother. As a result, Danny finds out that he has to get a summer job at a local restaurant preparing to open for the tourist season. Run by a friend of his mother's from her high school years, the restaurant will be a change for the area - an actual eatery with a well-trained chef and manager on board, instead of the crappy burger place that used to inhabit the same building.
While Danny hates his starting position as dish washer, he soon comes to love his job. Working in a kitchen just makes him happy, and he soon discovers a major interest in learning how to cook. He also gains interest in Lisa, a girl from the big city who is working at the restaurant for the summer. She's everything that his town is not; she's a girl that is unique and edgy. The kind of girl that could possibly turn him straight. Danny's summer is one of confusion and growth as he discovers himself in many ways. With tones and emotions that echo that of Ellen Wittlinger's classic novel Hard Love, Way to Go is a coming out story that mixes the pain of self-discovery with humor and a love of cooking.
Readers will come to quickly enjoy the voice of Way to Go's Danny. He's the kind of narrator that manages to make an emotional narrative light, and that type of voice in LGBTQ literature is hard to find these days. The narrative isn't a comedy, but Danny's narration is more focused on the long term perspective of the story, rather than wallowing in all of the unnecessary cyclical emotions found in some events. He's a character that is very unsure of himself in the beginning of the novel. There is so much he questions about himself, and the drinking he gets into in the beginning is a quick-fix for his sexual troubles. What was most surprising about his voice in the beginning was how it flitted from one issue to another. Danny doesn't focus on the "turn me straight" part of his issue for too long, and readers will appreciate that as they read through the story. Danny's growth is pretty evident in instances like that - he isn't dense about his situation and doesn't focus his entire narrative voice on attempting to be something he's not. Danny's growth isn't romance-based, either, which provides a nice change of pace from everything. He also is in an environment that, while prejudiced at times in the novel, doesn't threaten him to the point of major angst. It's a character arc and experience that fits in with what a lot of small towns are like at this point in time - there is an idea that people will care about your sexuality, but the reality is that there will be many that won't care. Danny doesn't really get a mentor figure or come out full-force in the book, but he does quietly accept himself and realizes that it's okay to be who he is. With his unique voice and character arc, he became a character that I easily identified with.
Way to Go is very Danny-centric (which is what you'd expect), but a lot of the novel does explore the issues with other characters. Lisa, in particular, is a character that Danny uses as a focal point for his narrative. It vaguely reminded me of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love, but in this case Danny is the gay one and Lisa is straight. He first sees her as an interesting person that he has an emotional connection to - a person that could theoretically "turn him straight" if he really is just questioning - but soon sees her as a more complicated individual who deals with a lot of stuff in her life. Lisa's transformation throughout the book opposes Danny's in many ways. While he learns more about himself and who he is, he sees that Lisa ignores what makes her who she is and continues to make mistakes because of that. She is a character that gets into bad romantic spirals with boys like Kierce (whom she doesn't even want to date) and a later guy that is bad in other ways. Both times she readily ignores the emotional issues in the relationship, as opposed to Danny whose growth really depends on how he learns that he can't separate the emotions from the physicality, being the reason that he can't show interest in girls beyond friendship. Danny's family is also characterized very well. Way to Go shows a surprisingly nice parental conflict, which is unusual in LGBTQ fiction. Danny's mother is very subtle and supportive of her son, while Danny's father is absent and moody due to some personal issues he goes through. Danny's relationship with his family isn't featured too prominently, but when it is featured it shows some great relationships. I also really enjoyed the chef, JP - a guy who is very set in his ways but becomes a foodie mentor for Danny. Some characters do get flat-out annoying like Kierce, though. He made me want to reach through the pages and strangle him at several intervals.
Way to Go primarily uses the character conflicts as a way of exploring Danny's self. The novel explores his acceptance of his sexuality to some extent, but it's more so in his relationship with Lisa, his parents, his friends, and cooking that Danny really grows as an LGBTQ character. It's really unusual to see an LGBTQ novel that chooses to mainly grow the character via relationships not pertaining to their sexuality, yet it's refreshing because it's ultimately much more realistic. Lisa reflects the person Danny wants to be, but also the person he doesn't want to be. Lisa ultimately never fully understands herself or why she is the way she is - she takes her bad home life and simply recycles it in her behavior elsewhere, whereas Danny keeps his home life more stable. Danny also works to understand where his parents come from, so the relationship he has with them appears to affect him in a less-harmful manner. There's also Danny's friends. Kierce keeps Danny from being overly sexualized - even if Danny had a boyfriend, his manners towards sex and physicality are not as hormonal as Kierce's - and Jay keeps him leveled. Cooking, however, is where Danny's narrative really becomes something special. Way to Go shows Danny's cooking as something of a particular passion. It doesn't come around enough, because the scenes where Danny is cooking or learning about cooking are great. They don't go into technical detail, but the character's pure delight in the activity is evident based on his actions. Where Way to Go missed the boat a bit is in the treatment of these scenes - there are really far too few of them, and Danny's connection to the art of cooking really made the reader want to spend more time in that section of his life.
The writing in Way to Go is pretty accessible to teenagers. It uses profanity and "older" themes with a realistic hand, and the prose is basic and easily read by a variety of reading levels. Danny's story is really meant to be a story that resonates with many teenagers, and the voice speaks to that. Way to Go reads breezily, actually, and I haven't found many LGBTQ YA books that read like that. More often than not there is a lot of angst and emotion found in the narrative. Danny's not so focused on that stuff, so the emotions feel strong but also put into perspective. He also doesn't focus as much on the negatives of being gay - it just becomes a reality for him that he has to deal with in the best way possible. That kind of writing really spoke to me as a reader during the reading experience. If there's any trouble with it, it's that Way to Go also became a book that I was easily finished with once the last page was turned. Danny's story ends on a positive note that allows the reader to come to peace with everything, and the writing style was light enough that nothing about it made me particularly starstruck (or, on the flip side, enraged) in terms of its execution. That's the kind of book Way to Go is - if you've read a coming out story before, there's nothing here that really strikes you as new or ground-breaking. It's a story that teens need to be able to discover, and it's certainly a healthier, less-dramatized version, but it just missed the boat in being a book that I loved obsessively. Still, I can't stress enough that the feel of this book is so out-of-the-norm for LGBTQ young adult books, and that allows it to be a great coming out story in its own right despite not focusing on the angsty nuances of the period as much as some other books do.
Readers will enjoy Tom Ryan's debut novel for the frothy aspect it brings to the coming-out tale. It doesn't focus so much on the depressing portions of the emotional period, and in many ways it does things better by showing the reality of how people are affected by so much more than just their sexuality. The novel, however, is just a bit too short and light to truly tackle some of the things that it explores. Despite that, the characters are enjoyable and the narrative voice makes for a book that is easy and fun to read. I haven't read a coming out book like Way to Go before, and I very much look forward to seeing what kind of material Ryan produces as a writer later on in his career.
Cover: I really love this cover. It's very true to the book, and the bright colors and whimsical nature of the tape match the feeling of the story.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from author for review (Thank you, Tom!!)
*Note* Hey, readers! If you're interested in Way to Go, check out the giveaway for it here!