Gonzales, Sophie. Only Mostly Devastated. Wednesday Books. 2020. $17.99. 288p. HC. 9781250315892.
Out-and-proud Ollie moves from San Jose, California, to Collinswood, North Carolina, for the summer with his family to help care for his ailing Aunt Linda. At the lake one day with his cousins, he meets a boy named Will and the two are immediately taken with each other, and so begins a summer romance, the sort of mutual infatuation perhaps only experienced by high schoolers. When Aunt Linda takes a turn for the worse, Ollie and his parents decide to stay for the school year. Now the new kid at the local high school, Ollie is quickly befriended by a group of girls, and before long tells them of his fling with Will—only to discover Will attends the same school and is still very much in the closet. When the boys see one another at a party, Will’s initial excitement at seeing Ollie quickly dissipates, and as the days go on, he distances himself from Ollie, unwilling to admit his true feelings.
Early on while reading this YA novel, I started hearing Frankie Valli’s voice in my head, and it dawned on me that Only Mostly Devastated is a queer retelling of the movie Grease, only here the girls have traded in their Pink Ladies jackets for identical necklaces, and the guys are basketball players donning black and white letter jackets. But the storyline is different enough from the movie to still make for a fun read. Besides, the primary audience of this novel likely hasn’t seen Grease. The novel has a racially diverse cast of characters, at least three of whom are queer. These three, Ollie, Will, and the quick-witted Lara (the Rizzo character), are well-rounded, sympathetic characters, and their self-doubt, love, and heartbreak all sound like genuine expressions of adolescent angst.
The pairing of an out-and-proud gay boy with a closeted boy is reminiscent of YA novels Openly Straight and We Contain Multitudes; and its setting in a typically conservative state and its exploration of bisexuality, often absent from queer YA novels, is reminiscent of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Gonzales’ treatment of Ollie’s frustration of Will’s double-life, and Will’s fears of openly professing his love of Ollie, is an exploration of yearning for acceptance and a sense of belonging and speaks to the difficulty of coming to terms with one’s sexuality as a teenager. Not everybody is ready to come out at the same time, and it is only when Ollie meets Will halfway that Will is ready—and does so in a very grand and public way, a testament to the courage it requires to come out. Affirming novels like Only Mostly Devastated didn’t exist when I was growing up, but I’m glad they do for the next generation.
Review by Andrew T. Powers (he/him/his)
University of Michigan