Absolute Brightness, by James Lecesne
Absolute Brightness doesn't know if it's an Afterschool Special or adult literary fiction.
It's also a good hundred pages longer than it needs to be.
On the Afterschool Special front, it's about a fifteen-year-old straight girl learning a lesson about how she shouldn't be an asshat to her younger, probably gay, cousin... but only after he is murdered.
On the adult literary fiction front, it stars a fifteen-year-old who loves D.H. Lawrence and is prone to musings like this:
"This. This I'm going to remember." Memory isn't like that; it isn't that selective. Anyone who has anything worth remembering will tell you that memory has a mind of its own; things we tend to remember are often not even real memories, but rather the memory of memories that just happen to stick in the mind.
Also on the adult literary front:
The rooms were large and spacious and seemed as if they'd been designed for the sort of elegance that the church could no longer afford. Cut-rate carpets in off shades of beige and tan clashed with the Old World fabrics of the seat cushions. Chairs that looked like they would've been more at home in a medieval play about knights and dragons hadn't been properly introduced to the Danish modern end tables. It was a mishmash of styles and patterns with only one unifying theme—thrift.
I mean. "Danish modern." Granted, all of the action in the book took place when she was fifteen, and if I'm reading the last chapter correctly, she's a senior when she's doing the storytelling, but... still.
On the Hundred Pages Too Long front, it's repetitive, it's scattered, it feels like at least three different books—the two I've already mentioned and also a courtroom drama—mashed into one volume. (There's also a bonus parental sexual abuse storyline, wheeeee.)
A good lot of it certainly hasn't aged well, especially the way Phoebe talks about her estranged best friend, who is Black, and the local priest, a Black man originally from Ethiopia. Or the unnecessary snobbery about community colleges. There are a plethora of gay slurs—some of which felt pretty dated, like "queenie-boo," although for all I know that's a regionalism—but those weren't unexpected in a book dealing with the themes Absolute Brightness does.
There is also a lot—a LOT—of criticizing and policing women's appearances in here. It made sense to a degree due to the characters and set-up—Phoebe's mother is a hairdresser and Leonard is really into giving people makeovers—but... oof. Granted, this passage—and it goes on for a while longer—within the first three pages may have particularly affected my attitude about that:
It's not that I'm bad-looking. But my arms and legs have always been a bit too square, my hips are wide and I have a butt. I like my breasts. Once I got over the embarrassment of actually having breasts, I discovered that they gave me power over the boys at school when I wore a certain kind of top. My face is fine, but maybe it's a bit too flat and round to be considered anything other than just cute.
The book does showcase some great insights about people, like how so many people are uncomfortable with genuine, earnest emotion; or how showing vulnerability—being open about wanting to be liked or (god forbid) accepted into a group of friends or a family—is treated as a weakness:
Perched on the edge of his seat, clapping at our antics and egging us on, he was making it plain that all he really wanted in this world was to be included. This, he seemed to be saying, is all I need to be happy. But unlike the rest of us, he didn't care that his need showed; he wasn't embarrassed by his ridiculous desire to be liked.
And it touches on people's tendency to say exactly the wrong things when faced with the unknown:
Some of our customers felt it was their duty to stop by and weigh in with their opinions and their stories, which inevitably involved missing children, dead babies and student nurses who had been tortured and then dumped in shallow graves by maniacs.
I fully understand that I'm in the minority on this one—it was a 2009 Morris finalist, has blurbs from a million and six Famous People, and was literally written by one of the co-founders of the Trevor Project—so maybe there's just something here that I'm not getting? All of my other issues aside, it read, to me, as a 472-page retelling of the Gay Kid Gets Killed Off So The Straights Can Learn To Love Thy Neighbor trope, and I'm just... not here for that.