I'm pretty sure this is one of the first ARCs I got my hands on when I started and even then it was several years old.
For some reason, that I cannot imagine now, I thought Absolute Brightness would be different.
I may have been wrong about the main plot and outcome, but it was certainly heartbreaking. That's a win for the #ReadThemAllThon Cerulean City's Cascade Badge and I'm glad I finally read it but...
Well, you'll see. If you're willing to brave the spoilers below the fold. For non-spoiler-y glory, here's a preview:
Absolute Brightness is a story about Phoebe’s life briefly before Lenard moves in, the short time he lives with them, and after his disappearance. It’s about her, a straight white female growing up, discovering romance and different people.
It’s not really a book for gay teens, as it is for straight people. Leonard isn’t the protagonist. Phoebe grows up, becomes less homophobic but still has very gender-normative mentality. It’s a hand-holding exploring middle grade book for white straight people to experience knowing gay and black people without needing to know any.
It will be heart wrenching for QUILTBAG teens especially, seeing their identity attacked again and the see the best friend be self-centered, sheltered, clueless and callous. At first, she calls him sissy boy. While later she acknowledges how her language has changed because of Leonard, she doesn’t ever get him.
Genre: YA, Contemporary, QUILTBAG, Mystery, Social Issues,
Format: ARC, 474 pgs.
Rating: 2 Stars??
CW: Rape, Homophobia, Violence,
Darkness: Where light is not. Light: Brightness or illumination from a particular source.
Absolute brightness: The mystery of Leonard Pelkey.
This is the story of a luminous force of nature: a boy who encounters evil and whose magic isn't truly felt until he disappears.
Phoebe tells Leonard to stop being himself, so ~flamboyant~ and obvious but he never comes out as gay. He says he’s only being himself, nothing more. This really comes into play towards the end when people are describing Leonard during the trial. They dance around labeling him because of this so they use words like flamboyant and different while Phoebe whips out ‘sissy boy’ again.
Leonard disappears because she didn’t fall under his spell like the rest of the town and she needed to learn a lesson. It’s a better use of the trope than Winger but it’s disheartening to read all the same.
I’m not saying stories like this shouldn’t be told, but if I’d know this going in I’d have been hesitant (at the least) instead of ecstatic. After all the high praise reviews and the non-spoiler reviews, I was expecting something else; Instead of the same old ‘stereotypical safe special snowflake gay that’s too good for this world’ as new tearful journey. I’m sure if my expectations matched the content, my experience would’ve been improved. Somehow.
It’s been 8 years since Absolute Brightness was published, but it feels more dated than that. We aren’t past media killing their gays, but there’s so much push back now. Would Absolute Brightness get a pass for being written by a gay activist today? Is there something I’m missing?
It makes me wonder if I read it years ago, would I feel the same way? Was I this clueless then? Absolutely possible. Probably. Absolutely. Fuuuuuuck.
Thankfully, that cannot be said today. But considering where you are is a good idea before delving in is a good idea so it’s not such a letdown.
Phoebe’s romance is a strange thing. Their first kiss is in public, spur of the moment, the onetime Phoebe defends Leonard, and in defense of being called a lesbian. From there, nothing happens until his makeover and Phoebe needs help. It isn’t really thought of as a relationship until the end when the implications are made public. Yet that’s when it’s called love…
While it becomes plenty weird and gross and scary in the end, I loved Phoebe’s realizations. She grasps for something to hold on to, finding his hand to hold. Her internal turn of events rings true to me. And realizing she played him up in her mind, her feelings muddling her perception and thinking…ouch. That’s something I dealt with during my first relationship that turned abusive and haven’t read something that nails it so well before.
In the end…
We have a non-gender conforming teen who disappears for most of the book, a mystery with an obvious perpetrator and an unclear chain of events, arguments against the death penalty, child rape by a parental figure that’s dealt with by ignoring said figure and the victim not receiving help, an Iraq war vet coming home heralded as a hero then ignored and a romance with a perpetrator that’s mostly imaginary and called ‘love’.
None of the issues are really dealt with in a meaningful way. They are brought up, acknowledged, and swept away by the next problem. There isn’t a conclusion or follow through. How was the war vet’s family handling his return and disability? Is the rape victim going to get counseling? Why isn’t her family doing anything about her mental health issues? What was between Phoebe and her…make-out partner? What the hell happened that night?
Some will love it for being as messy and inconclusive as life while others will hate it. Not just the content, but the time skips and Phoebe’s train of thought. I liked the tangents about the characters to bring them alive and her voice. Except when she was being a clueless brat, but she’s sheltered, young, and learning at least.
For me, I was engrossed while reading and now don’t know what to think. I’m hardly satisfied but enjoyed reading it while it lasted. It’s a thick book, but it flew by quickly and felt much shorter.
Ehhh.....For the writing and flow, for engrossing me despite it all, Absolute Brightness earns a falling, crashing 3.5 stars.
Everything else ranks it, at best, a two. And since I've stewed on it, 2 stars sounds and feels better.
I hope that makes sense because I have to go with my gut on this one.
If anyone has or wants to read a "too good for the world so kill your gays" tale, this is the best I've read so far.
Recommending Absolute Brightness is hard because how straight people perceive the QUILTBAG community within and how preachy-shallow it becomes with the death penalty while ignoring child rape.
I think it could be a great introduction for middle-schoolers, especially in white areas, but this cannot be the end. If it is, they’re likely to be the unhelpful allies and continue terrible tropes and thinking while proclaiming otherwise.
If you’re in the right spot with the right expectations, I think Absolute Brightness could be a great world-expanding, emotional, thoughtful read.
But for me, it felt flat after finishing and even engrossed during the book, I was very aware of what I was reading.
Note: The author, James Lecesne, is a member of the GLBT+ community and activist. This review in no way, shape, or form disparages his identity or work. I applaud him for everything he has accomplished. This is just my honest reaction and feelings about Absolute Brightness. It’s nothing personal.