Like a Love Story
As a child of the eighties and nineties, I recognize the fear buried in the lives of the three main characters of Abdi Nazemian’s beautiful and emotional Like a Love Story. To have come of age in the late eighties through the mid-nineties was to experience a sexual awakening fraught with a single notion – that making love was akin to playing Russian roulette with your life. Reza, Art and Judy all yearn for the ability to express themselves, to express their sexuality, but are stymied by social and parental pressure and a fear of contracting HIV. All three have had the AIDS crisis touch their lives in some form already; thanks to a mutual love of fashion and Madonna, they are destined to become friends, and destined to live through a bumpy coming-of-age together.
Seventeen-year-old Iran native Reza is brand new to New York, having moved there from Canada with his mom. With a mouth filled with metal, scars caused by his abusive father, a looming fear of coming out, the pressure of living up to the reputation of his brilliant sister Tara, and a homophobic and racist new stepbrother all tormenting him, Reza forces himself to stay in the closet, yearning for a way to express his true self.
The confrontational Art is a photographer in full rebellion against the world at large, but specifically against a conservative family who expects him to worship at the Altar of Reagan. He’s begun to tag along with his friend Judy to her Uncle Stephen’s ACT UP meetings, photographing small interactions between its members while participating wholeheartedly in its activism. Art is only out to a select few people, and as he attends protests and marches against a government that refuses to lower the price for AZT and refuses to allow the afflicted even the basic dignity of a private, peaceful death he becomes more and more fearless. Since he believes there’s no future calling his name, the will to make now count and leave an important legacy behind becomes a siren’s call he can’t resist.
Plus-sized Frances – called Judy by everyone – has been Art’s best friend since they were small kids, and she lives, breathes and eats fashion just like her designer uncle. She’s so hungry for love that she’d do about anything to capture it – except wear pastels and attend her mother’s self-help book club meetings.
When Judy locks eyes with Reza across the hallway at their high school, she falls in love for the first time and invites him into her circle. The threesome become friends as Judy and Reza embark on a tentative relationship. Reza is taken under Art’s wing, and Stephen watches over them all, holding down the fort with fatherly advice and frequent movie nights.
But the more time Reza spends with Judy and Art, the more Art begins to fall for Reza – and vice-versa. Art becomes jealous of Reza’s attachment to Judy, Judy tries to step out from Art’s vibrant shadow and develop into her own person while pressuring Reza for a sexual commitment, Reza tries to figure out who he is and they all watch Stephen weaken. When Art and Reza’s mutual attraction comes to light, their three-way friendship is devastated, and only patience and forgiveness will bring them back together.
At the beginning of this review I mentioned how well Like a Love Story captured its characters’ fear – but it does something else remarkable – it thoroughly captures their anger as well. As the book becomes a scream of rebellion – a shout against politics that will be too familiar to modern readers – it wraps the reader up in its iron grip. It’s also a good character study about difficult people who are flawed but good, angry but loving, impossible not to root for but annoying as heck.
Nazemian’s teenagers are complicated, human creatures – moody, rarely self-satisfied, often unpleasantly snotty and sometimes unwise and self-righteous. Their happiness comes in rare waves. Occasionally their angry, rebellious statements fall into Rent-like bursts of sweeping generalization – but this is fitting, as teenagers are wont to be that way. Of our main characters, Stephen was my unquestioned favorite, but I had a real fondness for Judy, who sometimes felt stranded in the background during the Art and Reza romance, to the point of feeling a shade underdeveloped.
I adored Reza’s fumbling search for rebellion and angst, but Art I liked in fits and starts – and sometimes his selfishness could be a bit much to take. Their romance is fraught and written with passion, but ends in a way that doesn’t feel fulfilling. As for the least enjoyable characters in his roster, Nazemian’s villains are HIV and the system itself, but some human villains surface in the guise of a clique of evil, racist, homophobic Young Republican bullies, one of whom becomes interested in Judy but all of whom have no real depth.
Like a Love Story has a bigger mission – its fearless exploration of the AIDS crisis and its impact on the queer community is incredibly powerful and dramatic. As someone who lived through that period and who protested as a teenager, I nodded along with the characters’ triumphs and failures. Stephen’s struggle is portrayed unstintingly and unsparingly, and eventually assisted suicide is discussed and portrayed.
Only a few of the many pop culture references in the book don’t really land. You will wince when Art lavishes so much affection on Morrisey as his first wet dream subject in light of the singer’s recent emergence as a far right icon, and at the amount of love lavished on Madonna in light of the reexamination of her appropriation of ball culture within the queer community.
Like a Love Story is so much more than the sum of its pop culture references, though. I urge young readers to absorb it, to take a deep look at what it says. To take the inspiration it offers and – most importantly – live.
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