100-Character Breakdown: A young adult novel with a unique protagonist and setting that make its coming out story feel fresh.
Genre: Young adult, LGBTQ
Publisher: HarperTeen (June 2016)
Coming out stories sometimes feel overdone in LGBTQ young adult lit, but luckily the characters in Kenneth Logan’s debut novel True Letters From a Fictional Life keep the story fresh. James Liddell is a 17-year-old soccer player with a sort-of girlfriend named Theresa, but we know from the letters he writes — all locked away in his desk — that he’s not exactly interested in her. James is gay, and it’s a secret he only reveals in his letters. But when someone steals some of his letters and mails them out, his secret spirals out of his control. Now he has to come out much faster than he intended, find out who stole the letters, and make things work with Topher, the guy he’s interested in.
The Vermont setting of a small, mostly white, and upper-middle class town works well with the story. There’s tension with Aaron, one of the out gay kids at James’ school, and this setting allows Logan to explore diversity with Derek, James’ black, Christian friend. It’s nice to see some exploration of religion, albeit briefly. James, Derek, Theresa, Topher and the rest of the characters are also well-rounded. James is an especially interesting character; he might be gay, but he still doesn’t understand it. He compares himself to Aaron, who fits several stereotypes, and the letter he writes to him is a complex exploration of his perspective. And James’ circle makes his coming out process feel more fresh. He has the sort-of girlfriend, the soccer team, his friends, and his family, including his 10-year-old brother Rex. His relationship with Rex is one of the most interesting and genuine parts of the book.
Oddly enough, the plot with the letters is probably the least successful part of the novel. The letters that James writes do a lot to expand his character, but the mystery of who stole his letters feels overdone. The released diary trope isn’t very original, and that part of this novel simply feels familiar. It doesn’t add much to the story besides expediting James’ coming out process. It’s a bit disappointing considering the rest of the novel works so well. But looking beyond that flaw, True Letters From a Fictional Life stands well on its own. With a unique main character, a good blend between humor, drama, and romance, and strong, believable writing, Logan’s debut is a clear success.