Queer YA Romance “And They Lived…” is your new favorite summer read

When I was a teenager, I only read the books everyone else read. Now, I’m doing everything in my power to give marginalized authors a chance to shine despite the spotlight elsewhere. This year, I made a (perhaps silly) bet with myself that I would actively promote only queer books, to make up for all those years of reading only heteronormative mainstream fiction.

And they lived… by Steven Salvatore is one of those books that a younger me would have – reluctantly – overlooked, and one I was so happy about came out in 2022. After completing ARC, I loved the characters and the story so much that I had to talk about it right away to somebody, so I interviewed the only person I could, the author.

This book immediately clicked on me because of its polyphony. It’s definitely a romance, but I can’t say for sure if the main romance is between two boys, a boy and his friends, or a boy trying to love himself. The story follows queer teenager Chase Arthur as he embarks on a typical coming-of-age journey during his first year as an art student in college. There are different Aha! moments along the way, but they’re quiet and reverberating, rather than the eureka epiphanies you’d expect from the genre.

Chase is already gay and genderqueer, so his story isn’t about coming out; he hopes to experiment and figure out how to accept the parts of himself he doesn’t like. For years, he has struggled with eating disorders and body dysmorphia that come back to haunt him from time to time. “Everything he went through, I went through,” author Steven Salvatore told INTO on a Zoom call, “So it was coming from a very real, personal place.” The main character’s struggles certainly seem incredibly raw; although they are not the point of the story, they are there to add a unique realism to the narrative.

Chase is already gay and genderqueer, so his story isn’t about coming out; he hopes to experiment and figure out how to accept the parts of himself he doesn’t like.

One thing Salvatore set out to do in writing Chase’s story was to open our eyes to how damaging body norms can be and how easily gay and non-binary children can fall into mind disorders. diet and body dysmorphia. It’s become more normal to talk about bodily standards that are unattainable for women, but they also plague the queer community, because it’s a very “aesthetically based” space, in Salvatore’s own words “You’re already marginalized, and the only place you think you fit in, maybe not because of how you look.

“Writing this book was very cathartic,” Salvatore confessed. Chase was born as a kind of alter ego that has existed in the author’s mind since he was 15 years old. “When I wrote to him, it was me,” says Salvatore. Chase became a friend, and finally a way to end a first love that didn’t end in happily ever after in real life.

As the title of the book suggests, there is a recurring fairy tale motif throughout. And they lived… Chase was raised in fairy tales and now he can live his own, complete with a cute encounter and all the tropes you’d expect from a rom-com. Alongside the sweeping romance he has with Jack, a poetry student in his year, is the original fairy tale that Chase writes and hosts as his final class project, a story about two cursed princes falling in love. Salvatore admitted that he would like to write this story in a full fantasy book for YA, much like what Rainbow Rowell did when she took the fanfiction that her main character wrote in Fangirl then published the story as part of the To chase trilogy.

Chase was raised in fairy tales and now he can live his own, complete with a cute encounter and all the tropes you’d expect from a rom-com.

The romance between Chase and Jack works so well because it is defective; the book never tries to sweep issues under a rug, successfully overcoming the all-too-common mistake in this genre where a character’s past issues magically disappear overnight once romantic love kicks in. stage. Salvatore makes sure those struggles stay there, providing the real conflict of the story and allowing their characters to grow and improve.

Chase’s initial friendship with Jack and the beginning of their relationship is just sweet, a dream sequence in which the outside world is of little importance apart from the two lovers. Until reality hits, of course. At first, it might seem like Jack is the perfect love interest, a golden boy with a perfect family and not a single worry in the world. But halfway through, we learn that he also has a lot of trauma to unpack, especially years of internalized homophobia fed to him by his conservative city. From Chase’s perspective, we don’t directly see how much all of this weighs on Jack, but it’s not hard to guess.

When the inevitable third-act breakup happens, it happens in a way that I enjoyed more than I can say. This book positively shocked me by consistently providing realism and giving good examples to its readers. At their lowest, the characters realize the only way out is to work on themselves, go to therapy and deal with the scars of the past and try to live life without each other, become better apart before to be able to be together. The real character development is for Chase and Jack to try to accept each other and to understand that “self-love is a lifelong thing”, as Salvatore puts it, and that “love really comes from inside, and you have to really love yourself, and that takes a lot of time.

It was a brave choice on the author’s part to introduce a struggling protagonist and leave him still struggling at the end, rather than perfectly wrapped and tied with a bow. “I worry about this idea that exists specifically in YA rhetoric and discourse that queer characters have to be perfect and everything has to be sanitized…” Salvatore said. “That if the queer character doesn’t like themselves, it’s automatically toxic…but name one person who truly, truly, fully loves himself, I challenge you.

“I wanted them to have an openness with each other that was very real among gay friendships.”

This is true for the diversity of characters that color Chase’s life. None of the many friends he makes along the way are one-dimensional or superfluous or added simply for symbolism; they all struggle like all humans, and they all have something to show us. Ultimately, this book is as much a love story between Chase and his friends as it is a love story between Chase and Jack. The narrative is enriched by those ride-or-die friendships that are even more encompassing than the romance; these heartbreaking ruptures of friendship too often forgotten in literature but which sometimes hurt as much as the loss of a soul mate. Probably the highlight of my month was the bond between Chase and his roommate Benny, where Salvatore faithfully portrayed how special queer friendships can often be. “I also wanted to create a friendship that was a very platonic gay friendship between Chase and Benny,” the author explains. “I didn’t want there to be any sexual tension between them or romantic tension at all, but I wanted them to have an openness with each other that was very real among same-sex friendships.”

The book ends on a deliciously sweet note and with bright hope for the future, as we remain acutely aware that everyone is a big work in progress. This’It’s clear that Chase and Jack’s story has only just begun. Will there be a never after? Salvatore hopes they can tell this story one day, they certainly intend to write more about these characters. “Of all the things I’ve written, [ATL] means the most to me.

And they lived… is a romance that sweeps you away while keeping you grounded with raw realism. It’s packed with teenage angst and melodrama, the joys and sorrows of being young and unsure of where you belong, and adorned with art and poetry. This is a book that every fan of romantic comedies should read. ♦

This is Steven Salvatore’s second published book. Their first novel, “Can’t Take That Away”, is out in 2021. Their third novel, “A Supercut Of Us”, will be out in 2023.

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