on June 2, 2015
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The Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-relief procedure seems too good to be true to Aaron Soto — miracle cure-alls don’t tend to pop up in the Bronx projects. But Aaron can’t forget how he’s grown up poor or how his friends aren’t always there for him. Like after his father committed suicide in their one bedroom apartment. Aaron has the support of his patient girlfriend, if not necessarily his distant brother and overworked mother, but it’s not enough.
Then Thomas shows up. He has a sweet movie-watching setup on his roof, and he doesn’t mind Aaron’s obsession with a popular fantasy series. There are nicknames, inside jokes. Most importantly, Thomas doesn’t mind talking about Aaron’s past. But Aaron’s newfound happiness isn’t welcome on his block. Since he can’t stay away from Thomas or suddenly stop being gay, Aaron must turn to Leteo to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he is.
Adam Silvera’s extraordinary debut novel offers a unique confrontation of race, class and sexuality during one charged near-future summer in the Bronx.
Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not hit me right in the feels.
I checked this one out from the library on an impulse: I wanted to read a book with LGBTQI content, particularly one that considered intersectionality; I don’t tend to look for stories about LGBTQI-identified young men enough and I’d like to amend that; there was the hint of a sci-fi premise with the Leteo Institute’s mind-altering technology; and last, but not least, I liked the unsettling half smiley face on the color. (Hey world, if you are trying to get me to read a book here are some pro-tips on how to do it: make it queer, make it sci-fi, make me feel vaguely creeped out by the cover. I will read that book in a heartbeat.)
And this impulse paid off. I read More Happy Than Not in one sitting (thank you, coffee, for making this possible) and was always interested and engaged by it, and I never wanted to stop reading it. If you’re looking for a great book about a kid coming of age (and potentially coming out) in the Bronx, this is a wonderful choice. I liked so many things about it, you all.
Here’s the premise: Aaron Soto lives in a world that feels … mostly pretty recognizable – he’s growing up in the Bronx projects, he’s Puerto Rican, he’s a nerd (& delightfully so) who loves comic books and has been drawing his own, he’s been dating his girlfriend for about a year and it feels like love, and he’s trying to come to terms with both his father’s suicide and his own failed suicide attempt following that. The only exception to this mostly pretty recognizable world is that you can pay the Leteo Institute to have your memories altered. The novel opens with Aaron’s reflections on this process – he kind of thought it might be bullshit, but is increasingly open to the possibility that it isn’t – but then the Leteo Institute mostly disappears from the main narrative of the text.
This is because Aaron is busy dealing with other stuff: namely, the introduction of Thomas, a new guy to the neighborhood, who quickly becomes fast friends with Aaron. But is it friendship or something more? Aaron realizes his feelings for Thomas are deepening and that he might be, in his own words, a “dude-liker.” (As someone who also tip-toed around identifying as gay for awhile, I loved this, even though it gave me all the feels.) Anyway, so being gay presents a number of problems for Aaron – View Spoiler » he’s attacked by his neighborhood friends when they suspect he might be gay « Hide Spoiler – and he thinks the Leteo Institute might provide a way out. Can they make him forget his sexuality?
I bet you can guess the answer to that question.
What I liked most about the book was Aaron’s narrative voice: Silvera does an A++ job here, for reals. Aaron’s voice is disarmingly funny, but oh man, there’s also so much emotional depth (and as much honesty as Aaron is capable of). I loved reading about his complicated relationship with the other guys in his neighborhood; his Trade Dates with his girlfriend, Genevieve; his developing friendship with Thomas; and his sneaking suspicion that it might be something more. My reading experience bounced back and forth between delighting in Aaron’s narration (tell me more about this abandoned musical about a robot who time-travels back to the Mesozoic era to study dinosaurs, and also Scorpius Hawthorne, demonic boy wizard) and then bam, emotional wallop. Like so, when Aaron comes out to Thomas: “But for tonight, this is enough. From the shapes cast by the green paper lantern, you would never know that there were two boys sitting closely to one another trying to find themselves. You would only see shadows, hugging, indiscriminate.” GAH. ::heart explodes::
And even before we know precisely what’s going on in the novel, there’s a sense that there’s quite a lot going on underneath the surface for Aaron as he falls in love with Thomas. And this is conveyed really splendidly! View Spoiler » And gah, I was so fooled by this! I was like, “Hey, so obviously what’s going on under the surface is that Aaron’s gay and struggling with it,” and like, that is heartbreaking enough to read, but it is even more heartbreaking when you find out that *he has already undergone the Leteo Institute’s procedure* from the moment the book opens and just doesn’t remember it. « Hide Spoiler Aaron’s developing recognition of his own sexual orientation felt really, really right and familiar to me. There’s a moment where he “realizes” that Thomas is gay and also might be attracted to him, and he worries about how the neighborhood will respond to Thomas’s sexuality, and oh man, he’s so obviously thinking about himself and working through his own feelings that my heart went out to him. (Not in a patronizing way, but in a “oh man, I have totes been there” way.)
So while I loved this book (and I did a lot, and I think you should read it), there were aspects of it that didn’t quite work for me. Namely, the Leteo Institute and the memory-altering procedure? While I thought it was an interesting premise – what does it mean for someone to try to forget their sexuality? for us, socially, for Aaron, individually? – I wasn’t thrilled with its execution. For most of the novel, the Leteo Institute isn’t … all that present. And while this is with good reason, it left me kind of wondering, for most of the novel, why this technology was even a part of the story. Huuuuge spoiler under the cut. View Spoiler » Which is still my feeling upon finishing it, although I want to be totally upfront here and say that I am still working through this and open to thinking about it more. Like, what does the use of a memory-erasing technology bring to the story that, say, something like reparative therapy doesn’t? The end point seems to be something along the lines of: you can’t change your sexuality, even if you want to, and trying to do so can only bring you sadness.
What happens is this: after Aaron gets attacked by his friends, he realizes that he has already undergone the Leteo Institute’s treatment once before, and that actually, he went through the process of falling in love with a friend and coming out to himself previously. But coming out to his family that first time sends his dad into an emotional tailspin, which results in his dad’s suicide. Aaron undergoes the procedure to forget about that and to be made straight. This doesn’t work, and potentially, all of this has done enough damage to his brain by the end of the novel that he loses the ability to form new memories.
And, long story short, I’m still not quite sure how to read the ending: that trying to forget who you are can only result in … actually forgetting who you are? Trying to forget the past means that you have to live in it all the time?
If anyone’s read this and has any thoughts on this, please help. « Hide Spoiler Additionally, the use of the Leteo Institute’s technology means that there are things that don’t quiiiiite make sense in the novel until you’re more than halfway through. View Spoiler »For example, why Genevieve is so upset at Thomas’s birthday party – it makes sense when you find out that she’s already been through this before, but it doesn’t make sense until we learn that Aaron’s already tried to make himself straight. Additionally, when Aaron is first falling in love with Thomas, I was kind of bothered that bisexuality wasn’t even on the table as a valid identity for him, since, as far as we can tell, his relationship with Genevieve seems great and very sweet and there doesn’t *seem* to be anything missing from it. What *is* missing is, of course, Aaron’s memories, so this makes more sense once we learn that he’s already undergone the procedure, but for the first half of the novel, I was pretty miffed. « Hide Spoiler
So this might be obvious, but I really liked this book and would absolutely recommend it on the strength of the narrative voice alone. It deals with coming-out in an interesting and unique way, and also thinks about sexuality in relationship to class, ethnicity, and gender (which is … not all that common and is really well done here). Also also, I should note that this is Silvera’s debut, and it’s an excellent one. Pick it up if you have a chance.
Has anyone else read this? If so, what’d you think?