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In every marginalized community, there comes a point where you can feel that generational divide, where you realize that this generation’s biggest concerns are wildly different from last generation’s. And that is, of course, largely the success of activism, of paving the way for a better future.
But every year, I notice that nothing highlights this generational divide quite like Pride month, when, for some, history sits front and center, while others are immersed in all the ways queer identity and expression have changed during the rise of the digital age and social media in particular. It can be a difficult gap to bridge, and it doesn’t help that queer history rarely features in YA.
Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story isn’t the first YA to touch on the AIDS Crisis, as readers of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, Cordelia Jensen’s Skyscraping or Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth are well aware. But it may be the first to tackle it head-on, with gay male leads who are experiencing the thrill of romance alongside the fear of the disease, the stigma, and the unknown during its heights in the 1989 New York City setting that comes to life on every page.
The book, Nazemian’s sophomore effort, stars Reza, a New York transplant from Iran by way of Toronto, who’s just coming into understanding his identity. There, he meets Art, who’s out and proud and unlike anyone Reza’s ever met, and Judy, who’s Art’s best friend and the niece of Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who dedicates his life to activism as a member of ACT UP. Romance hasn’t historically been Judy’s thing, but when Reza moves to town, she falls hard and fast for him. Unfortunately, Reza’s falling for Art, and Art’s falling right back, but neither of them wants to hurt Judy or, by proxy, the uncle they all love and admire.
It’s messy and complicated, as the combination of love and fear often is. And in the backdrop of it all, Reza and Art are watching their community fall one by one, knowing that to give in to their sexual attraction to each other is to risk everything. They realize just how precious it is to have love and friendship and connection, and what it would mean to tell the truth and risk losing Judy’s. And all three of them live with the heavy weight of knowing that Stephen’s time will eventually come, as so many of his friends’ already has, and their world will be irrevocably altered, so much of its color drained.
It will be, no doubt, a familiar fear to so many readers who lived through it, but for those who haven’t—for those who are learning their history through this gorgeous work of fiction—Like a Love Story ensures that no one will walk away without understanding at least a tiny piece of the way those years and the Reagan administration shaped queer life past, present, and future. While it’s impossible to capture everything about the peak of the AIDS crisis, its effects, its aftermath, and its activism on the page, the use of three different perspectives goes a long way toward fleshing it out for the reader, never glossing over either passion or ugliness, sickness or salvation.
It’s history wrapped up in a love letter to both New York City and the community that’s thrived there for decades—and to Madonna, whose powerful music and messages of self-love and bold self-expression got so many through those darkest times. (The title, Like a Love Story, is a nod to her famous song titles beginning in similar fashion. Prepare to cue up both “Like a Prayer” and “Like a Virgin” for your listening soundtrack.) It’s a book that makes you feel grateful for not only what it shares but who it represents and what they wrought. It’s a book that feels special in that otherworldly way the most magical of books do. It’s a book that should be in every school library, in every LGBT center, and on every Pride display.
It’s a book I feel privileged to have read, privileged to have loved, and privileged to now push into the arms of every reader I can.