And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore
Chase Arthur is a budding animator and hopeless romantic obsessed with Disney films and finding his true love, but he's plagued with the belief that he's not enough for anyone: he's recovering from an eating disorder and suffers from body dysmorphia fueled by his father, and can't quite figure out his gender identity. When Chase starts his freshman year of college, he has to navigate being away from home and missing his sister, finding his squad, and contending with his ex-best friend Leila who is gunning for the same exclusive mentorship. If only he can pull together a short for the freshman animation showcase at the end of the semester.
Then Chase meets Jack Reid, a pragmatic poet who worships words and longs to experience life outside of his sheltered world. But Chase throws everything into question for Jack, who is still discovering his sexual identity, having grown up in close-knit conservative family. Jack internalized a lot of homophobia from his parents and childhood best friend, who unexpectedly visit campus, which threatens to destroy their relationship. Chase will have to learn to love--and be enough for--himself, while discovering what it means to truly live.
TITLE: And They Lived...
AUTHOR: Steven Salvatore
LENGTH: 384 pages
AGE: Young Adult
Queer Rep Summary: Gay/Achillean Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Main Character(s), Closeted/Questioning Main Character(s).
*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book.
AND THEY LIVED... follows Chase, a freshman in college who's a gay kid in love with love and then suddenly very in love with a guy named Jack.
Chase’s thoughts move a mile-a-minute and it gives the narrative a frenetic, juddering quality, like someone talking until they run out of breath, pausing a moment, then doing it all over again. It fits him as a person and helps the narrative feel fast-paced even when technically not much is happening in a scene. He references a lot of pop culture touchstones which are important to him, often casually and sometimes in a slightly longer discussion of what they mean to him.
Chase struggles with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder. The book description is very up-front about this, which I appreciate. The eating disorder is mostly backstory except for a pretty self-contained sequence late in the book and little mentions in proximity to meals, while his body dysmorphia has a more constant presence. His relationship with pronouns and gender identity is in a state of flux while he’s trying to figure out what pronouns and labels apply, as well as whether that’s even something that needs to be labeled at all. I've used he/him for Chase since that's the most consistent pronoun set in the book.
Leila and Chase were friends in high school but aren’t anymore, which causes a lot of very relatable stress and awkwardness while they’re in the same program together. He has mentors, a crush and hopefully-boyfriend, a nearby best friend, and a mix of roommates. It’s a lot of people to keep track of but there’s enough of them having their own things away from him that it keeps from getting too much. Once Chase and Jack’s romance gets going then more things revolve around how Chase feels about that relationship and various milestones of intimacy which he is simultaneously eager for and nervous about.
One thing I appreciate about this portrayal of a young person in college is that some of the relationships from high school have continued here in some form, emphasizing how this is a transition point in his life and not everything is tucked away neatly. Being an almost-twenty-year-old in college isn't automatically a clean slate, and I like how Chase and several of the other characters have relationships that came over that social milestone with them.
Chase's relationship with his dad is a minor part of the book and I'm pleasantly surprised by the way it develops. I thought it was going to just be this awful status quo in the background but there's time for things to change a little there even though they don't have much contact.
There’s a kind of meta thread in the narrative where Chase is obsessed with fairy tales but understands that on their own they’re often simple, with clear morals and neat endings, not giving room to process the generally traumatic events from the story. AND THEY LIVED... has messy characters and many options but no definite right answer. There’s a sequence where Chase is being teased and Jack takes a while to realize what’s going on, but when he does he stands up for him. It leaves just enough room for the wrong thing to happen, then there’s a correction with some kind of reconciliation and explanation. It works better than Jack just doing the right thing from the start because provides an opportunity to touch on why the mistake might feel more socially acceptable than what the actual right thing is.
The plot hangs on Chase’s worries and struggles with his animation project and how his various kinds of relationships interfere with his focus on it. For a lot of the book his focus is on Jack and that relationship, but part of Chase’s journey is figuring out how to be a self-loving person without needing to use a boyfriend’s gaze as a proxy. The animated short which he's trying to write works as a framing device around and between the events in his life. It connects to it because he's creating it at the time, and so the parallels are either specifically intentional or are a result of him working through things. I like the main story and the ending suits it.
CW for cursing, sexual content (explicit), gaslighting alcohol, drug use, ableism (brief), body dysmorphia (graphic), dysphoria, homophobia (graphic), misgendering, fatphobia, eating disorder (graphic), vomit, suicidal thoughts (brief).