Authors: John Green & David Levithan
Genre: Young adult
Boy meets boy. Oh, not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter.
I’m racking my brains trying to think of previous occasions on which two authors whose work I’ve enjoyed separately collaborated on a project together. I think the closest I can come (don’t laugh) is when Paula Danziger of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit fame and Ann M. Martin of The Babysitters’ Club co-authored a book called PS. Longer Letter Later, which I read at that point in my early teens when I was just devouring all of the American young adult literature I could find in an effort to learn all those things about life none of the actual grown-ups I knew were willing to tell me. (As opposed to now, when I’m still reading lots of American young adult literature, but mostly because I’m immature, and also vaguely attempting to write a YA novel of my own and convincing myself that it’s all research.) Anyway, I was a big fan of Paula Danziger, but I think I’d only read one of Ann M. Martin’s books, so I went into that novel with a pretty heavy bias to one side. If I recall correctly, the whole book was written in the form of letters between two separated best friends, with Danziger writing one character and Martin writing the other.
Something similar happens in Will Grayson, Will Grayson. It’s not in epistolary format, but it does divide its chapters equally between Will Grayson (written by Green, in standardised prose) and will grayson (written by Levithan, entirely in lowercase). In terms of practicality, this seems like the best way to split a novel between two people, but it has some disadvantages: certainly here the splitting of the two separate narratives at the beginning means that both of them take a while to get going. It’s only when the two Wills – completely separate people who happen to share a name – meet (in a sex shop, of all places) and invade each other’s worlds that the story really starts to come to life.
I found this a struggle to read in places, possibly because the two writers have very different styles that don’t always mesh well. Green’s writing is mostly naturalistic with occasional brushes of the fanciful, while Levithan’s is heavily stylised. Levithan’s will (assume for the rest of this review that “Will” refers to the character written by Green and “will” refers to the one written by Levithan – I might as well make things easier for myself by borrowing their style) is probably the harder of the two to warm to as well. Will Grayson is a quiet, amiable kid doing his best to keep his head down and not get noticed as he goes about his daily life, while will grayson is messed-up and deeply angry. will’s grudge against the world rings true, I’m not denying that, but due to the first person nature of the narrative, spending 15 or 20 pages inside will grayson’s head can be quite draining, emotionally-speaking. will grayson is also stuck with the book’s most problematic plot, in which a character does something unspeakably horrible for reasons that are never made entirely clear. Again, will’s hurt throughout is palpable, but I found myself wanting an explanation for why she did it, and I was left rather unsatisfied on that front.
What this book does well is to capture the quagmire of teenage love, both gay and straight. Will is a classic wallflower, always picking exactly the wrong time to make his move, and I really enjoyed the very deliberate slow-burn of his relationship with Jane. It’s a while since I was a teenager, but the mutual tentativeness masked with dry humour made a lot of sense to me. Similarly, although the relationship between will and Will’s gay best friend Tiny Cooper was a less obvious pairing, a lot about that rang true to me as well – it’s a relationship born out of being thrown into an unexpected situation together, and an affair that burns passionately but briefly, until the two of them have to accept that they may be a little more in love with the idea of each other than with the actual person. It’s a tough balance to get right, but Green and Levithan handle this well – even the more comical sides of Tiny’s personality are toned down enough to generate real empathy for him at this point.
I wasn’t hugely convinced by the ending, if I’m honest – I think both writers’ love of the fantastic slightly took over at this point and it became a bit too much of a fairytale that stretched my suspension of disbelief to breaking point. It would’ve been nice to have something more grounded to leave the tale on, as well as something that felt a bit more like an actual ending as opposed to the text just stopping. That said, if you just want to experience the blistering highs and lows of young love, this rendition captures it extremely well.