Select a book at random from your bookshop’s young-adult section, and (if it’s not Harry Potter lookalike), chances are very, very good that it will be some take on a girl falling in love with a boy—a staple trope of YA literature. Harder to find but increasing in number, thankfully, are tales of first love among lesbians. And then there’s the rarest genre of them all: love stories about two teenage boys.
What They Always Tell Us, a debut novel from Vanderbilt graduate Martin Wilson, is a welcome contribution to the final category. The romance here is wrapped in an authentic portrayal of contemporary, upper-middle-class teenage life, and in its portrait of two brothers, the novel also offers an uplifting look at the challenges to—and triumphs of—family loyalty.
Set in the author’s hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, What They Always Tell Us opens in a bleak season for high school junior Alex Donaldson, who drank Pine-Sol in a confused, depressed, and inebriated moment at a back-to-school party and has been a pariah among his peers since. Alex was drifting away from his buddies—a frankly loathsome group of privileged and insensitive teens—even before the incident, but now he finds himself thoroughly cast out, the object of their whispers and mean laughter. Everybody else at school gives him wide berth, too, including his older brother, James, a smart and popular tennis player, who feels betrayed and angered by his brother’s mistake.
Everyone, that is, until Nathen Rao, a well-liked senior and good friend of James, befriends Alex and encourages the younger boy to join him on the cross-country team. Things start to look up for Alex as the two begin running together, and their friendship evolves into something more. Wilson handles the budding romance with tenderness and a light touch, allowing the reader to feel almost as surprised by—but comfortable with—the boys’ first flirtations as Alex does.
Alex holds his secret bond with Nathen close to his heart, relishing how good it makes him feel while wondering if his happiness rests upon it too shakily. Nathen, after all, will be leaving for college up North soon.
As Alex bounces back, strengthened both by his new devotion to sport and affection for Nathen, James struggles with his own shifting sense of belonging. Preoccupied with dreams of freshman year at Duke, James has grown weary of his clique and their limited horizons and hopes for the future, so divergent from his own. “They don’t sit around worrying about college and grades like James; they know where they are headed-to … [the Univeristy of] Alabama and the frat life, more or less a continuation of their lives right now,” Wilson writes. “Lately, around them, James feels like they are becoming strangers. Or that he is becoming the stranger.”
When one of Alex’s former friends—who happens to be James’s doubles partner on the tennis team—ratchets up his harassment of Alex, James knows it’s time to stand up for his sibling and does so with firmness and grace. As Alex and James grow happier and surer of their own paths, the ice between them thaws, too, and What They Always Tell Us reaches a happy ending that feels earned by both brothers, natural, and utterly optimistic.