This was one of my first reactions to Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which takes place throughout my beloved Chicagoland (but was written by two authors who are not Chicagoans, unfortunately for them). I remembered that I do not read contemporary young adult novels because they make me feel very old and stodgy. Dusty. This book was no exception. This is not the high school that I experienced.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson is ostensibly about two high school boys with the same name, but really, I think the book should have been called Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story because the book was all about him, not the Wills. Will Grayson the First lives a pretty ritzy life on the North Shore, gets really good grades, is best friends with the fabulously gay Tiny Cooper and is perhaps attracted to this girl Jane, but he doesn't let himself find out for sure for a while because his two rules are 1. Don't care too much and 2. Shut up. (I bet you can tell where his story goes in this book.) Will Grayson the Second lives in Naperville (also a very ritzy suburb on the west side, though this Will Grayson is not wealthy) with his mom. His dad left some time ago, Will battles depression, doesn't believe in capitalization, is pseudo-best friends with Goth girl Maura who is in love with him, but he doesn't love her because he is in love with his online friend Isaac.
Will Grayson the First meets Will Grayson the Second at a porn shop in Chicago, serendipitously, introduces him to Tiny Cooper, and then their lives begin to intertwine.
Only they don't, really. You would think that in a book that is titled after two characters with the same name, that the book would be about the two of them and their relationship with each other, but really the book is about each Will's separate lives and the only overlap is Tiny Cooper, who really dominates the story.
I liked Will Grayson the First, in that he wrote with proper punctuation, seemed pretty well-adjusted, had some quality one-liner, and asked girls questions about physics. He was a pretty typical guy (except for the physics questions). But in many ways, he wasn't fully realized for me. For example, his two rules of not caring and shutting up- we hear about them a lot, but I have no idea why he is so shut off from people. From what I can tell, he has some really great parents, a very supportive (if self-absorbed) best friend, and generally does pretty well for himself. So why is he so angst-y? Is it just general teenage angst or did something happen in his past? We never find out. And it turns out not to matter because his story goes exactly the way you think it's going to go, and you can rest easy knowing that Will Grayson the First will probably become an excellent surgeon and set his fabulous life to an awesome indie rock band soundtrack.
Will Grayson the Second was more interesting, but his life seemed to be defined by other people. First by Isaac, who he was so in love with for so long, and then, very abruptly, he switches completely to Tiny Cooper, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And then out of nowhere, Will Grayson the Second seems to have a sort of epiphany of realizing I Must Be My Own Man, which is great, but how did he get to that point? I don't know! It is possible I missed something. There was a scene involving a swingset in which a lot of stuff went down that I don't fully know if I understood. But it seemed to me like Will Grayson the Second had this amazing, confidence-boosting, individualistic moment and I was not there to see it, and that made me sad.
The thread between these two stories was this third character, Tiny Cooper, who is a huge marshmallow of gay pride and really, really dominates the storyline with his personality. He is a fabulous character, and his story should be told, but not in a book called Will Grayson, Will Grayson, in my opinion. Particularly at the end of the book, I felt like the focus of the book shifted to be not on either of the Will Graysons, but on Tiny and his influence and effect on so many people through the story. Very "Tiny Cooper, This is YOUR Life!" Which I am sure was very moving and wonderful for him, but it really took the emphasis away from the Will Graysons. I suppose it is very realistic that much of high school can be spent in the shadow of a more dominant person, but that doesn't mean that the quieter and smaller people can't have moments of triumph just to themselves, too, and I feel that the book's ending really overpowered these moments for the Wills.
That said, this read was entertaining, not least because it fed my love of Chicago with lines like this:
Traffic's not too bad on Sheridan, and I'm cornering the car like it's the Indy 500, and we're listening to my favorite NMH song, "Holland, 1945," and then onto Lake Shore Drive, the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the boulders by the Drive, the windows cracked to get the car to defrost, the dirty, bracing, cold air rushing in, and I love the way Chicago smells - Chicago is brackish lake water and soot and sweat and grease, and I love it...And then it made my eyes mist with lines like this, from Will Grayson the First's dad to his son: "I'm so proud of you that it makes me proud of me."
And gave me the tiniest, slightest peek into the horrible world of depression with descriptions like this (capitalization added by me):
I think the idea of a "mental health day" is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it's like to have bad mental health. The idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. Mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying, "I don't want to deal with things today, " and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide.
Yep: there was a lot I appreciated about it, but it should have been two different books. It's like, we got Tiny Cooper, but I'm still waiting for Will Grayson, Will Grayson.ReplyDelete
I had forgotten about that last quote, or maybe it just didn't stand out then as it does now, but it's such a great one.
Maybe the sequel will be called "The Tiny Cooper" story but REALLY be about the Wills' transitions to college.Delete
I have looked at this one a couple of times, but somehow was not compelled to pick it up. So I really appreciate your review and analysis. I wonder how they could write all that if they aren't from Chicago? (And by the way a couple of years ago we were in Naperville and went to a cookie dough scoop store - the only one I've ever seen or been to - made me love Naperville ever since!) But I'm with you - I was a total goody goody. I think that's why I *do* like to read YA books - a hankering for the kind of teen years I never had! (not that they sound so great, but it's that forbidden fruit thing...) :--)ReplyDelete
So I hear that at least John Green lived in Chicago for a few years, so I guess he'd know it well, but I was very impressed! And I have never HEARD of this cookie dough store- sounds awesome!Delete
I liked this one well enough at the time, though I agree that it was more about Tiny Cooper, and I didn't really like either of the Wills that much (esp Will the First), but the further I get from it, the less I like this book. It didn't feel terribly well developed, the ending cut so abruptly and wasn't focused on the Wills at all...I don't know.ReplyDelete
Yes, I did not like the ending at all. Completely agree.Delete
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Isn't some of the point of literature to tell stories outside of our experience? If we're too afraid to experience literature that tells a story that differs from ours, what does that mean? I didn't have times like this represented in my childhood, either, (although I swore, and continue to have a super dirty mouth even now and lied A LOT to my parents out of necessity) but it doesn't necessarily make me feel like a failure or a loser or like I missed out.ReplyDelete
That's a pretty specific reaction to an entire type of literature that's puzzling to me -- why does it make you feel like a loser that you had different life experiences? What about those life experiences makes you avoid reading about different life experiences? Why do the life experiences represented by YA authors make those characters "winners", exactly?
I was being pretty tongue-in-cheek there. I suppose it didn't come out well online, but I didn't feel like more of a loser during my teen years than anyone else does, I'm sure. I had a pretty solid group of friends, many of whom are still in my life ten years later. I just had a very different experience than that portrayed in most movies and tv shows and books.
I cannot talk with any authority on contemporary YA because I don't read much of it because so many of them are like Teen Goes on Great Adventure! -- John Green in particular is guilty of that -- and this is probably a legacy issue of adults reading literature written for young adults. To them it's adventure fiction and contains possibility after possibility, to us: well, that sucks I won't get to have that fake ID!Delete
But I always look at the contemporary YA as a bit fantastical, because I had plenty of friends but still preferred to stay home and lived in a small town where a Friday night highlight was tailgating at the local super market (joy). Generally I don't compare and contrast, so your introduction was interesting to me because it seemed to impact your reading so much and shove the book to a place where you couldn't invest in any of the events at all as potential things that could happen to these kids. Which is fine, but piqued my curiosity!
Hi Renay - I don't read much contemporary YA, either. I don't think that's because of me being uncomfortable with the modern YA experience but because I really just don't like the drama and angst that is generally the MO of young adult novels. I guess I grew up in a time without much YA fiction except for classic novels or Sweet Valley High, none of which are anything like the books set in high school now.Delete
I don't think I shoved the book back to a place where I couldn't invest in the events- I was just kind of overwhelmed with how different their experiences were than mine, even though we quite literally grew up in the same place. It's a little jolting sometimes to see your home viewed in a completely different light than the one that you experienced, I guess! But that doesn't mean I can't invest in these events happening to other people, and I'm sorry if I came off seeming like that much of a snob.
No, you didn't seem like a snob at all! :) I am lacking that experience, because no one has ever written a high octane teen thriller about my teenage experience where they tip cows and hang out down by the river telling stories by firelight. *g* So I am missing your perspective! It must be interesting to live in a place where those types of conflicting experiences can occur, where in my neck of the woods the world I grew up in had one similar narrative that could branch off into leaving that narrative for the city (remove themselves from it) or adding alcohol to that narrative for humiliating naked fun times. It's fascinating how places can have stories, just as much as people do.Delete
I also may be coming from a different angle because well done angst (that has good payoff) is so delicious and hits all the right buttons for me. I feel about this book that Green and Levithan (whose writing often leaves me cold) were trying to mesh their styles and it didn't work, much like Will and will never meshed for me. Tiny was a part of that, sort of, because he was an anchor for them, but I didn't get any sort of emotional response from their connection, which is what disappointed me most about the book beyond Tiny taking over the narrative. I feel like all the elements you cite -- Will's angst, will's angst -- would have had more of an emotional payoff if they could have made the connection click for me. Alas.
Apparently John Green really did go on adventures as a teenager and right after. Some combination of growing up where everybody drove and going to boarding school and... So it doesn't really surprise me that he writes about it. For the record, I loved WGWG. Not my favorite John Green, but things like Tiny taking over the story didn't bother me at all, and actually added to the book for me.Delete
I also found your intro really interesting, Aarti. For years I was convinced that school bullying was a myth because I honestly never saw (serious instances of) it when I was growing up. It was very weird as a 21 or 22 year old to be confronted, by people as close to me as my first cousins and with evidence as strong as teenagers committing suicide, that I was totally and completely wrong.
We learn when we're really little that other people have different experiences than us, but I think that we still make the assumption that most people are like us, that they have experiences like us, until we're confronted with evidence otherwise. Not speaking specifically to your intro, just reacting to it.
Renay - It's so interesting that you say that because it sounds like you are being self-deprecating about growing up in the country and thinking that not many stories are set there(of which I think there were probably many, just not in the past couple of generations). And that's basically my reaction, I think. I had a very pleasant upbringing, but not a very *exciting* one, and I can see why exciting probably sells more books, but I wish some of us less-high-intensity kids had stories that we could relate to, too.Delete
Jessica - He went to boarding school?! Wow, he doesn't WRITE like he went to boarding school. That is, the one book by him I've read (which had another author writing it with him) was so *suburban* in feel, if that makes any sense, that it's hard to believe he didn't live it that way himself.
And I think you're right. It does seem a bit silly to say it, but you really only realize how strikingly varied lives can be as you get older. For instance, I think I only truly got a slight idea of how slavery could affect someone's pride and dignity last year, when I read Kindred, the first story I've read in a long time about slavery.
Have you read Mare's War? The main character, if I recall correctly, was pretty clean-cut and a good girl. She does, of course, go on a bit of an adventure, but maintains her good-girlness. I'm sure there are plenty of good-kid books that I just can't spring from the top of my head...Delete
And he only went to boarding school for high school, and maybe not even all four years of high school (though I think he did...), so he had plenty of suburbia, too. :)
I have not read it, but it's on my wish list! Thanks for the reminder :-)Delete
I love this book. Like, love. I think the surprising thing for me was how funny it was -- good job, authors. I kind of went into it thinking it was a sci-fi story though, so when I realized that was wrong, all my expectations went out the window, so the focus on Tiny didn't bother me so much.ReplyDelete
I thought it was sci fi, too!! I wonder why? The cover, perhaps? That looks YA sci fi-ish to me.Delete
Wow, I really appreciate your honest take on this book. I haven't read it and really don't read all that much YA. I do know what you mean about the lives of these YA characters seeming so different than how my teens were as well. I didn't feel like you came off the way the above commenter did, though. Although my teen years were mild, I still feel like they were fun and I didn't feel "less than", so I definitely can understand the confusing feeling of seeing how it is for the characters in the books. I'm not sure how I feel about that last quote... I get what he's saying and I know that actual mental health issues are much more serious, but the concept of a "mental health day" is super legitimate too, I think. Maybe being "pc" would be calling it a wellness day? The whole thing about no one caring one way or another unless they bring a gun to school is super depressing but it bothers me. Hmm, just something to think about I guess.ReplyDelete
Oh, that's a good point, Jenny. I think I agree with you, now that I think of it. I have a feeling, though, for someone dealing with mental illness, maybe the whole idea seems completely out of the blue to them, as then they would have "mental health" days every day to help them grapple with their problems. But just because they deal with things every day that the rest of us don't, that doesn't mean we don't all need some days to process what's happening to us.Delete
Also, I got rid of a paragraph above in the review so I didn't come off seeming quite so negative, based on Renay's interpretation above, so hopefully that helps ensure I don't come off like such a Negative Nellie!Delete
I can understand your disconnect with contemporary YA. My growing up years were not the stereotype I see so often in fiction. I haven't read John Green yet. Everyone seems to love him, but I haven't felt that much of a pull to try his work yet.ReplyDelete
Yeah, after this, I don't feel much of a pull to read any more of his work, either. Especially as people say he uses females more as props than real characters.Delete
I also have that issue with YA sometimes. Everyone seems so full of angst, and they are so maladjusted. I get it a little better now, especially since I have teenagers, but my life wasn't really like that, so I lose patience with all the whining about how bad everything is. I think it's funny that this book is really not about the title characters, but about Tiny, who sounds like a hoot and a half. I just have to say that I can kind of relate to that last quote somewhat though. It does seem very insightful. This was another great review, my friend. I liked reading your insight, and now I am trying to figure out if I want to read a a book about Tiny!ReplyDelete
Yes, I wonder sometimes if we just don't REMEMBER our lives being like that, or if they really weren't like that? I don't think many of my classmates were on anti-depressants, for example, but maybe I just didn't know. And I didn't ever feel so isolated as so many people in YA do, and I wonder sometimes if that helps propagate the idea that all teenagers are maladjusted or angry or lonely, when not all of them are. Or it makes it seem as though feeling that way is really out of the normal experience, when most people do feel that way at that age.Delete
I kind of say, eh. I just do not think that this book would work for meReplyDelete
It didn't really work for me, either, so I can't imagine I would convince you to read it based on this review!Delete
Relieved to hear that I'm not the only human on the planet who spent high school studying Latin....ReplyDelete
Haha, for me it was Spanish, but I hear ya!Delete
I have the same issue with contemporary YA. I do enjoy the stuff, but it almost never has much in common with my own high school experience.ReplyDelete
Well, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one!Delete
I'm not sure I would relate to this one either. If the story holds together well it doesn't matter if I relate or not but this one seems to leave a little to be desired. I'd put it on my "maybe" list since some of the reviews I read seem a bit more positive than yours. But...I trust your judgement so this one will be far down the TBR list.ReplyDelete
I think the book is enjoyable to read, but I don't think it's AMAZING. But you're right - many people do feel like it is, and I have a feeling that's because of how witty some of the lines are. I'm glad you trust me, though :)Delete
Yep, I never can relate to the experiences that people have in high school in contemporary books. Either I lived under a rock in high school or it was a totally different place than other people experienced.ReplyDelete
Yes, for me- a FAR more innocent and naive place!Delete
I usually love John Green (and David Levithan, though my experience of his writing is smaller) but I have to mostly agree with you on this one. I didn't feel the book really was about the Will Graysons, but too much about Tiny. Not a bad book, but a bit forgettable for me (and here I realize, I even forgot to post my review of it!)ReplyDelete
I agree- it's not very memorable for me, either, but then maybe we are not the target audience? I wonder if I were at the awkward, self-conscious stage that I would have been at say, 15 years ago, if this book may have just been so much more meaningful to me.Delete
I kind of agree with you that the book is more about Tiny Cooper than either of the Will Graysons. I did think it was hilarious, though. :)ReplyDelete
Also, I don't feel old when I read contemporary YA. I just wonder at the fact that the characters' lives seem so much cooler than mine. LOL.
You are much closer to high school than I am, Darlyn, so maybe the age creep doesn't affect you as much yet as it does me!Delete
But I definitely think many characters have cooler lives than I do. Or not cooler, necessarily, as I don't know if the second Will Grayson had a "cool" life exactly- but I suppose I feel more like my high school experience was not story-worthy? Which I know is silly because obviously, stories are written to share experiences, and it's not as though Will Grayson's life was mind-blowingly amazing and mine was just completely unexceptional. But I always get that feeling, anyway!
The purpose of reading YA titles, for me, is to understand the world my teenagers live in. If there's any YA literature out there reflecting the world of previous generations in high school, they wouldn't read it--they get enough of that stuff in things they're assigned to read.ReplyDelete
I loved the way the title skews the experience of reading towards the two Wills when Tiny is the center, because it shows a little of what it's like to be marginalized, to have your story only fully realized from someone else's point of view.
I haven't read this one yet, but I agree with you that the high school of YA books now is really different from the high school I experienced. I only graduated six years ago, but there are so many things that are different now -- people with ipads, all the social media, etc. And yeah, definitely only swore when something painful and unexpected happened to me, never snuck out of my house, broke curfew once (I was five minutes late, and called my mom to tell her), etc. I'm not sure if I was just really sheltered (I grew up in a small town in Idaho) or if sometimes books show a crazier scene than really exists.ReplyDelete