Thursday, May 31, 2018
Book Review: 'The Dangerous Art of Blending In' by Angelo Surmelis
"Maybe I'm not so ugly after all. Maybe no one is really ugly, and maybe no one has the right to call someone that or tell them that they are. Maybe the only real ugliness is what lives inside some people."
Usually, I am not a fan of LGBTQ books—mostly for young adults—that are horror stories of homophobia and/or a teenager going through extensive and damaging obstacles to figure out who they are in a homophobic, misunderstanding and heteronormative society. I have mentioned this in several other book reviews of mine. I like to call them painful coming-out stories. I don't intend to delegitimize the validity of coming-out stories, however: in some contexts, they are very important. But if I am going to sit down and pick up a YA book with LGBTQ main characters, I would just prefer to read stories about gay people living happily and finding themselves, without focusing too much on coming out. I wholeheartedly understand that this is not everyone's reality. I understand that teenagers who are struggling to come out may take solace in certain some coming-out stories. I get we don't yet live in a world where coming out is unnecessary, but if I'm going to read an LGBTQ book for young adults, I want to stick my head in the sand and pretend we do.
Anyway. All of this to say that, based on my general dislike of painful coming-out stories, one would have thought that The Dangerous Art of Blending In would not have been for me. But what made me enjoy it was that it was more of a family drama than a painful coming-out story. Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn't know where he fits in. His strict Greek mother refuses to see him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend Henry has somehow become distractingly attractive over the summer. Tired, isolated, scared—Evan's only escape is drawing in an abandoned church that feels as lonely as he is. And, yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it's his best friend Henry who's now proving to be irresistible. It's Henry who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it's Henry who makes him believe that he's more than his mother's harsh words and terrifying abuse. But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother's abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by avoiding attention at all costs.
There were a lot of strong points in The Dangerous Art of Blending In. First and foremost, Evan is a strong character. You can tell through his point of view that he has internalized his mother's abuse so much that it has made him isolated and deeply introverted. As a fellow introvert, a lot of Evan's thoughts and feelings are part of introversion, so he was pretty relatable in that regard. Also, y'know, the fact that he's gay and a huge introvert was also super relatable. Another strong point, in a more depressing way, was his mother's abuse. A lot of reviews on Goodreads point out that Evan's mother is obviously struggling with some sort of untreated mental illness, but I think it's more untreated demons from her rough upbringing in Greece that she is taking out on her own child, which is so so not okay. That being said, Evan's mother is seriously disturbed, so there very well might be some mental illness in there. The systematic abuse Evan endures from her—physical, psychological and emotional—is very well played out. She has such dramatic highs and lows, going from loving her son to telling him he is ugly, will never be anything but a disappointment, or that if being gay is who he is, he should die. There was also a distinctive ethnic perspective here, one that I think Greek readers will recognize. Maybe minus the intense amounts of abuse. That woman is messed up in ways her precious God would not even be able to begin to fix. His father was also written pretty realistically as someone who wants to avoid any kind of conflict, even when the abuse intensified.
The only issue I had with The Dangerous Art of Blending In is that it felt...underdeveloped? Not underdeveloped in terms of plot or characters, but more in the writing style. In other words, it's clear that this book is the author's debut. Not to say that it's badly written, but it felt like the author was spelling too many things out for the reader at times. Like how Evan was super closed off with Henry because that's how he's had to make himself to survive the abuse in his household. Or clichés like, "The person who was supposed to love me the hardest—the most unconditionally—has always wanted me gone. No matter how hard I tried to be perfect. Now, this boy—who knows all my imperfections and has seen all my hurt laid bare—wants me to stay." Not to say this is bad writing. It's well written. I just think the author should have evoked "show don't tell" with moments like this. Show me in more explicit ways how Evan is feeling, through his actions with others. I just felt the author spelled out too much for the reader in a lot of instances, which is what I mean when I say you can tell this is his debut novel. But I won't criticize the author too much. He includes an author's note at the end explaining how deeply personal Evan's story is to him and he was initially told by his friends to write a memoir, which he couldn't bring himself to do. So in that regard, The Dangerous Art of Blending In is a personal and very emotionally charged that I recommend to anyone who likes YA and LGBTQ narratives. 4/5 stars.