Published by Balzer & Bray on May 27, 2014
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads
From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning comes Guy in Real Life, an achingly real and profoundly moving love story in the vein of Rainbow Rowell and John Green, about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.
It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.
But they don’t.
This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other’s lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn’t belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren’t in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play-at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends-and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.
Wow. So I went into this book thinking I was going to read this charming little story about two gamer kids overcoming their differences and falling in love. And this is that book. Sort of. But it’s mostly so much more. It’s a complex, yet sweet and often humorous, examination of identities and gender roles. This is one of the most unique and affecting coming of age stories I’ve ever read.
We have Lesh, a refreshingly normal, nondescript teenage boy. Lesh likes metal and his best friend Greg and…that’s about it. Then there’s Lana who is a force so wholly herself. Lana has a rich inner world which she cultivates through drawing, embroidery and fulfilling her duties as Dungeon Master. She has something else that Lesh so sadly lacks: a supportive circle of friends. I really appreciated the duality of Lana’s assured sense of self against Lesh’s insecurity and vulnerability.
I really enjoyed the dual POV here. The character voices are distinct and the characters themselves are so relatable and easily understood. I had a good grasp on both Lana and Lesh fairly early on and it made reading from their dual perspectives so much fun. You understand what’s really going on in the mind of the other while in one’s head and it’s adorable and amusing to see them bumble through their interactions and misunderstand each other in that singularly adolescent way. This is one charmingly awkward romance with some seriously adorable swoon moments. Lesh can be just the sweetest. Trust me.
We also spend some significant time with Svettlana (not to be confused with the real world Svetlana, one t), Lesh’s female MMO avatar. I understand how these sorts of breaks from the main story can be frustrating, but in this case the gaming scenes are integral to both plot and character development. They are the vehicle through which we explore the ideas inside the book’s core. This is mostly a story about identity and examining and uncovering the roles we play every day, whether online or in our “real life” interactions.
This book raises so many poignant questions. Gaming culture is notorious for its hostility to women and its homophobic attitudes. Why does Lesh choose to play a female character? What does he learn through this experience both about being a woman and about himself in that context? Why do we assume certain roles? What effect do the roles placed upon us by others have? What is gender even anyway? If you, like me, are fascinated by these questions then you will love this book.
Do note, there is occasional use of the slur “faggot” by Lesh’s friend and members of his gaming guild. While certainly difficult to come across, it is there for a reason: View Spoiler »Lesh spends some time putting the Q into LGBTQ as he delves further into the Svettlana character. It’s there to additionally underscore the harmful effects that such everyday casual toxicity can have. Especially as this is toxicity is coming from his friends. « Hide SpoilerIt is part of the environment of realistic gaming culture that the author has crafted. It is part of the larger exploration of gaming culture and the unfortunate prevalence of sexism and homophobia, the anonymity of online communities, and how they intersect. It is safe to say that Lesh learns much not only about himself but gets a glimpse into the realities of what women and minorities can face both online and irl.
And I promise, as much as Lesh’s character grows and learns throughout this book, Lana gets her fair share too. She just didn’t have as far to go as our Mr. Tungsten having already been consistently awesome. I do love some good solid character development, don’t you? To say any more would spoil things, though.
The ending is a bit abrupt but not in a terrible way. I just wanted the story to keep going. That’s a good thing! I ended the book with a contented grin on my face and little spark in my heart. And so you see? My little SFF loving heart can too like realistic fiction! I wish there were more books like this one, especially in YA. Funny, sweet, serious, and complex books that challenge the status quo and get readers thinking about important concepts.