Coming of age stores can be very tricky. First off, everyone will have had their own experience. On the surface, that should only be a minor problem. However, what REALLY starts to get tricky is that people have a habit of assuming that everyone’s early life is exactly like their own. Such an attitude is forgivable in the young. It can become nauseating when people get a bit older. In writing, I find it almost insufferable. One of many remarkable things about this fine debut novel, is that it totally avoids the pitfall of assuming all lives are pretty much identical. Mr. Centrone IS indeed focused on a particular kind of growing up, but he manages to be aware that it is not universal and yet still find the universal qualities about anyone’s coming of age. The fact that he does all this and keeps the book funny, moving and occasionally exciting, is almost miraculous.
The protagonist, Tom Grove, is gay and from a wealthy family. A number of readers might assume that one or both of these attributes make him someone they cannot identify with. They would be dead wrong. Sure, there are aspects of Tom’s life that are particular to him but Centrone depicts him groping his way to adulthood among others. Through this, while not ignoring differences, he manages to isolate those things that bring us together when we are growing up, especially in college. These include, making friends different from those we are used to, maintaining earlier ties, learning about people from diverse backgrounds, communicating our emerging selves to our families, seeing how we might be immature but holding fast to what makes us individuals and, most poignantly, experiencing new freedoms with romance and sexuality. While we spend most of our time with Tom Grove as he manages these (and other) pitfalls of growing up, we observe his life in context with others and understand all of them better for it. Even if you’re nothing like Tom Grove, you’re likely to find yourself nodding in familiarity through several scenes of humor, heartbreak or both.
For me, the most uncanny moment came fairly early on when Tom attends a party. While I don’t want to give too much away, let me talk about the scene’s essence and remarkable insight and power. There is a moment when Tom is talking to two other young gay men about another pair of young gay men. Let me explain that I am gay and first came out at college myself. My experience was nothing like Tom’s or the people he is talking to. It was somewhat like the people they are talking about. While I could not identify with the protagonist in that scene, I COULD identify with the scene itself. In fact, I was almost overwhelmed by several memories that were practically identical (sometimes literally, sometimes in spirit) to what Centrone so sharply describes. I could not identify with Tom but I recognized him. I recognized the people he speaks to. And I both recognized and identified with the people they observe. For the first time, I started to see some past events from my own life more objectively, rather than just through my own eyes, colored by my own emotions. What Centrone pulls off here is what great fiction is made of. Large parts of the novel are, by design, lighter than this and that’s great. Light does not mean inferior. However, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Centrone decides to turn his fine observational skills to weightier matters in the future.
Another phenomenal aspect of this novel is its treatment of gay characters. As a gay man, I often avoid gay themed novels, movies and TV shows. They frequently insist on portraying gay life in one, media-approved dimension. Here, we finally get a look at the great diversity and variety among LGBT people. Tom is as far from a stereotype as you can get and he is vastly different from the other men in the book who share his sexuality. For young readers in particular, it will be affirming and liberating to read a book that avoids tunnel vision so well.
Be warned, there are characters you are going to want to smack throughout the course of this book! That’s part of youth and Centrone pulls no punches in that regard. I would urge readers who feel this way to keep going. A whole lot gets learned and a great deal of growing occurs. There are a few characters you never stop wanting to smack (Tom’s mother, for one) but isn’t that true in real life? Not everyone learns their lesson but most of us do, more or less, over the course of our lives. Mr. Centrone gives us a clear-eyed but never less than heartfelt look at one young man’s journey to the beginning of maturity.