Jun 15, 2014

[Books] How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater

I maintain an Amazon Wish List for various Kindle books of interest. Around my birthday and Christmas, I remind folks that this list exists so that we can open the door for giving me gifts without the need to actually see me in person. This genuinely appeals to me.

I added How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater to my wish list after it had come up on my Amazon recommendations while I was "window shopping" around the site. And a book that promises to tackle the whole LGBT teen coming of age type of story and making sure there's a lot of musical theater sounded like a good deal.

My "gay mother" finally selected this book from my wish list some time back and it was only recently that I finally found myself in need of another book to review. Rather than post another discussion of the sad state of LGBT rights in the Philippines, I figured a lighter book review might make for a nice change of pace.

And while the book wasn't quite what I was expecting, it was still a fairly interesting ride.

Synopsis: How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater is the first young adult novel written by Marc Acito. It managed to win the Oregon Book Awards' Ken Kesey Award for Best Novel in 2005 and supposedly the movie rights for the book had also been secured some time back, although no additional news has been heard about it.

Set in the 80's, the book is told from the perspective of our protagonist, New Jersey high school senior Edward Zanni. With his final year in high school looming ahead, naturally all that he and his best friend Paula can think of is college and how great things are going to be. And given how devoted both are to theater, the goal is simple enough - to get into the Julliard School in New York. And as things all seem so bright, he and his friends do their best to make the most of this final year.

But bit by bit things seem to fall apart, beginning with his father Al bringing home a new Austrian girlfriend, Dagmar. At first she seems pretty cool but once Al marries her, then thing really start to change - starting with Al telling Edward that the only college that he's going to attend is a business school. As Edward tries to figure out a way to pay his own way through Julliard, other things come along including the realization that he's highly attracted to their friend Doug, how he can't get hard for his girlfriend Kelly and other complications.

I was a little thrown by the fact that the protagonist self-identified as bisexual - admittedly it wasn't quite what I was expecting. And this was a pretty interesting spin to things given most other LGBT novels that I end up reading, although it's hard to say how well he was portrayed as a bisexual. Given his relative youth and more so his often immature way of thinking (as illustrated by the book), it becomes far too easy to want to dismiss his "bisexual" label for anything else. And that sort of latent biphobic thinking can be a little distressing when you fall into that trap.

As a young adult novel, the book nicely follows this tone by avoiding making things overly sexual. As much as the cover does describe this book to be a tale that includes sex, more often than not it's more just thinking about sex or being frustrated that it's not happening as desired. And that was another pleasant surprise. And while a part of me felt a little disappointed that certain attractions weren't quite consummated over the course of the book, on the whole it still made narrative sense.

And yes, the book has a lot of references to various musicals as part of the narrative, which certainly helps push the rather campy comedic tone that the story falls back on. It's not exactly laugh out loud sort of funny, but it was decently entertaining for the most part. But at times Edward can be a bit too much of a drama queen and thus gets a tad annoying.

The book's core plot has a lot of far-fetched twists and turns, which make the whole thing almost feel more like a farce beyond just a funny way to talk about teen life. It's sort of like a crazier version of Catcher in the Rye with a rather queer bent to things and frequent trips to a gay piano bar. But you won't get any hot and heavy sex scenes, which is a bit of a relief compared to most books that are tagged to be targeted for the LGBT market.

The ridiculously titled How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater is quaint enough but it doesn't quite push all my buttons - and I say this despite the fact that it involves musical theater. But it's still an interesting little romp in the 1980's that is sort of fun for audiences that can relate to the period but may fail as a young adult novel for modern audiences. For the most part I can only rate it as 3.5 moments of Paula being all confident in her body and sexual nature out of a possible 5.


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