“Hate is just fear in drag.”
Title: Like a Love Story
Author: Abdi Nazemian
Rating: 4/5 stars
CW/TW: homophobia, racism, illness + death, fat-shaming
New York City might be considered progressive due to its diverse population, but in 1989 – and probably still in 2019 – it was still a city that reeked of homophobia and racism. For a city so seemingly welcoming, there’s a lot of hate. Luckily, as seen in Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story, there is also a lot of love, assuming you find your people. Those “people” in Nazemian’s novel are Reza, Judy, Art, and the vibrant though largely sick members of ACT UP.
Like a Love Story’s main trio of characters are essentially a band of misfits at their prestigious school. Reza is Persian – and secretly gay – so he automatically stands out at the private school, which seems to consist mostly of the entitled children of rich white parents. That’s part of why Judy is different. She and her family are not rich; instead, her parents work hard to send her to this school so she can have a better future. She’s more interested in crafting unique designs that no one else is wearing and spending time with her uncle Stephen, her idol, who has AIDS. And then there’s Art. He comes from a rich family, whose goal for him is to go to Yale, but he doesn’t care about that. Art wants to live in a world where he isn’t targeted for his sexualty, where he doesn’t have to fear both persecution and death for being gay, where his parents accept, support, and love him, no matter what.
It’s no surprise that these outcasts find each other and want each other in ways that maybe they can’t have.
Here’s the thing: Like a Love Story sort of feels like a love triangle, but really, it’s not. More than anything, it is a story of self-love, self-acceptance, coming to terms with who you really are and being proud of that. Nazemian does an amazing job of capturing all these conflicting emotions that trouble all teenagers struggling with being their authentic selves. I can’t relate to so much of what the characters experience, I can feel it through Nazemian’s writing.
But at the same time, the characters are so profoundly affected by love or what they perceive as love – or the lack of it. Judy falls for Reza, but so does Art. Meanwhile, Reza tries to do what he feels like he’s supposed to do: have a girlfriend, be with a girl. But he can’t because he knows that’s not what he wants, it’s not who he is. He wants – and is inspired by – Art, despite having what I believe to be a real love for Judy. Judy is the first person to befriend him. She’s warm, protective, and unabashedly herself, and Reza loves that. And Judy loves that Reza doesn’t seem to want her to be the prim and proper girl her parents might think she should be. But Reza isn’t attracted to her, can’t be with her. And it breaks her heart, especially when she finds out he’s more interested in her best friend.
I’ve seen some people say Judy overreacts to Reza’s admission, but it’s clear she’s not mad that Reza is gay. She feels betrayed by her best friend, she feels unwanted by the boy she thought she loved. She’s overcome with rejection from both sides and then has to sit with the knowledge that her uncle, her hero, remains friends with them, despite his first loyalty being to her. Her reaction is the culmination of years and years of feeling like she is in Art’s shadow, that Art, despite his sexuality, is so much more privileged than her. Even things like his vegetarianism (which is why Vegan Book Club read this in the first place) have been nagging at her for a long time. As a woman, as someone who never felt like she fit in while at school, as a former teenager, i’s hard not to feel bad for her.
But it’s impossible to not feel for Reza and Art, especially the former. Art isn’t supported by his family, but he’s out, he’s proud, and he’s full of passion. Reza is scared and didn’t necessarily get to come out on his own terms, in his own time. Where Art can be selfish – he literally prays for Reza to be his, not really knowing if he’s gay but totally knowing that Judy is with him – Reza is selfless. He doesn’t want to rock the boat, he doesn’t want to disappoint his mother, to harm her, and he really doesn’t want to hurt Judy.
But he has to. Because sometimes you just have to be selfish.
Like a Love Story is a great reminder that we don’t choose our sexuality. We don’t choose who we love or who we’re attracted to. We are who we are, and who we are is holy, as Art says. It’s a sad story, but it’s one of hope.