Book Review: Like A Love Story

Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian (2019). New York: Balzer + Bray.

General Content Warnings for homophobia, discussions of AIDS, discussions of death, for wee spoilers, and for reminding you what genuine emotions feel like without medication.

Howdy. Wolfram here. I’m devastated I can’t find more on Nazemian’s Like A Love Story on the internet, so I’m using this humble blog to sit down and write something celebratory about it. First of all, we’ve got to appreciate the #ownvoice realness Nazemian brings to this narrative, with queer writers of colour so rarely getting the love they deserve. Secondly, Like A Love Story shares a location and historical setting with Helene Dunbar’s We Are Lost And Found, which makes for an excellent companion read if you don’t mind #outsidevoice. Finally, Nazemian’s unapologetic in his exploration of real queer history, of homophobia, and of AIDS, and I appreciate that he chose to show the ugly truth of queer liberation instead of prioritising marketability.

Like A Love Story is set in 1989 New York, where three high schoolers are forced to make difficult choices about life, friendship, and love. It utilises Nazemian’s own experiences growing up in New York as a gay Israeli immigrant, but includes wider, well-engaged insights into what life was like for queer people at this moment in history. It has some heavy moments that’ll leave you ugly crying — like the moment a character succumbs to AIDS, surrounded by their loved ones (a rare privilege). Yet there’s a ton of humour as well, with the main characters sharing heart-felt moments that’ll make your cheeks sore.

Now. Since I have mentioned AIDS, and that’s usually enough to turn people off these days, I’m going to drive this baby straight into the trashiest, nerdiest conversation I can think of: a face claim. I know face claims can be a little… problematic, but bare with me a hot minute because I want to nerd out and reeaally want other people to like this book. So as I fluff a review with fandom garbage, please keep in mind that I’m developing a headcanon based on details from Nazemian’s own words, as well as the work of these brilliant actors. You are more than allowed to disagree or have different opinions as long as you leave your thoughts in a comment.

Luka Kain AS REZA

Reza and his mother are Iranian immigrants adjusting to New York life after moving in with Reza’s wealthy new stepfather. He dates his schoolmate Judy despite the uncomforting presence of her gay best friend, Art. It’s Art who Reza secretly wants, however, and it’s only his fear of AIDS that stops him from ‘being gay’ himself. So when Judy decides it’s time to take their relationship to the next level, Reza has to decide how far he’s willing to go to keep this secret longing to himself.

I want to be true to Reza’s character (even though this is a head canon), and I absolutely adore Kain’s previous roles. In 2017, Kain starred alongside Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Margot Bingham in Saturday Church: a for-benefit musical production that worked with community groups providing services to queer people of colour. While more recently, I had a golden moment seeing him play Mateo in Dispatches From Elsewhere (2020).

Reza is an Iranian immigrant, however, while Kain is of Egyptian descent (as far as I could find, please correct me if I’m wrong). This means there’s a potential issue with misrepresentation of race. Having said that, it was Kain I imagined when Judy describes Reza the first time they meet in the hallway: ‘But his eyes, they are more like the richest caramel ever created. […] I look down and see his feet, also caramel coloured, with a few stray black hairs on each toe.’ This is how Nazemian describes a character based loosely on his younger self. Yet seeing Nazemian now (or in that video with Little Richie), it’s hard to imagine this as an accurate description of what he looked like. And as Egypt is but one country over, perhaps this wouldn’t be so big an issue?

What do you think?

Sophia Lillis as Judy

Judy spends her Sundays watching old camp films with her best friend Art and her gay Uncle Stephen. She has huge aspirations for becoming a famous fashion designer one day, with a wardrobe filled with dazzling creations that often inspire the people around her. But she’s also an impatient character who doesn’t enjoy the limitations of being a teenager. She wants to live big like the movie stars her uncle worships. She’s tired of waiting for life to start.

Judy is a refreshing change from the ‘beard’ archetype I hate in gay narratives, who get used as a means-to-an-end by the male protagonist and never have a life of their own. In Like A Love Story, Judy acts as her Uncle Stephen’s legacy: an older gay man with AIDS, who named her after Judy Garland and who acts as her best friend’s gay role model. Yet I feel Judy is the pinnacle character that holds the narrative together — the central connection for all characters, who wouldn’t be themselves if not for knowing her.

Needless to say, I love Judy. Finding the ‘right’ actress to play her means the world. But there’s a lot to Judy’s character that simply doesn’t exist in young actresses I have access to. She has striking red hair, she shares her uncle’s flair for dramatics, and she has huge hang ups about her body that other characters use against her. In the end I chose Sophia Lillis because she did an excellent job playing Sydney in I Am Not OK With This (2020) — and also because of [this article right here]. She’s absolutely gorgeous in every human way, and I think we’re yet to see the best of her.

Liam James As ART

Art throws himself into gay rights activism and camp culture under the guidance of Judy’s gay Uncle Stephen. He’d like to throw himself into Judy’s new boyfriend too, thinking he sees something between himself and Reza. But maybe that’s just the ache of loneliness he feels as he dreams of an easier life. AIDS is getting in the way of falling in love, after all. And Art’s afraid he won’t have enough time to live as loud as his heroes did.

This decision was 1000% based on James’s role as Billy Bennett in Syfy’s Deadly Class (2018). But he does kinda fit. James also plays Solomon in Speech & Debate (2017), where he emulates both the passion and apprehension for political activism that I feel Art would have in the beginning. After all, Art wants to find meaning and be heard and be taken seriously — but he also wants the simple, celebratory life Stephen paints for him.

While Art is your queercore, adorkable punk (gosh I wish he were my first boyfriend), he’s still an only son to one of New York’s wealthiest businessmen. There’s comfort where he used to fit in, which he only rocked by being queer, and I can’t imagine Art not thinking it would be easier to slot back in to the privileged lifestyle. He’s a habit of prioritising his needs over others as well, so it’s not always possible to be sympathetic towards him. I could literally pick any white, male actor for these reasons, but I think finding a comfortable balance between Billy and Solomon would make James perfect for the role.

Family keeps these people together — both the families they’re born with, and the families they choose — so I promise you’re going to love Like A Love Story‘s support cast to bits. We talked about Uncle Stephen a bunch already, but Judy’s mother was a powerful character whose journey will mean a lot to many of you. There’s Reza’s mother of course, but his step brother and step father surprised me by the end as well. I’ll leave you to discover Art’s family yourself, but I will say ending with him was probably the best choice Nazemian made for this novel.

<SPOILER> Twenty-six years after [character]’s death, our three protagonists have kept a tradition of meeting every year to celebrate their friendship. Both Reza and Judy have gone off to make families of their own, while Art is still contemplating his future. Told from Art’s perspective, this final chapter talks retrospectively of queer liberation over three decades: our sacrifices, our reasons to celebrate, and the vast expansion of our dreams as queer people. There’s a reminder that the fight for equality is still ongoing — this particular reunion happening just after the PULSE Nightclub shooting. But there’s also a real sense of pride and celebration for how far we’ve come as a community. </SPOILER>

And that’s all I have to say. A solid two-day read, so get yourself comfy. And have some tissues nearby because you will cry.

For more on Abdi, find him on his [author website], [Twitter], [Instagram], and [Goodreads].

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