Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a funny and heartfelt YA novel

John Green, left, and David Levithan teamed up for the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Pictures: Shutterstock
John Green, left, and David Levithan teamed up for the book Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Pictures: Shutterstock

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan appeals to me for a number of reasons. It's funny, heartfelt and set in Chicago (where I was born and whence my father's family hails). It's also an interesting collaboration between two well-regarded young-adult writers who have written it in alternating chapters, each in the voice of a character named - no surprise - Will Grayson. The two produced a book I like more than any of their individual efforts, good though they often are.

We learn about the two Will Graysons before they eventually meet quite by chance and under unusual circumstances, changing both their lives.

Green's indie-rock loving Will Grayson narrates the odd-number chapters. He's the only child of an affluent middle-class mother and father, both doctors, in the suburb of Evanston. He and feels ambivalent about his relationship with his best - just about only - friend, the large, loud and very gay, Tiny Cooper whom he feels overshadows him - in personality, in popularity, in talent - and dominates his life. Will tries to live by two simple rules - Shut Up and Don't Care - but can this attempt at emotional isolation be healthy? Or even sustained? What will happen when attractive, sassy Jane enters the picture?

Meanwhile, will grayson (so styled - he writes in lower case: it's how he views himself, as well as differentiating his chapters from Will's) has a less privileged life. He lives in a shabby apartment with his tired but loving mother. This will suffers from clinical depression and is constantly angry, pessimistic and self-hating. His only friends at school are a couple of nerds whose mathletic team he reluctantly fills out and Maura, a goth girl who is nosy and demanding. To add to his burdens, will is also in the closet: his biggest - only? - pleasure comes from the chatroom relationship he has with another gay teenager, Isaac, whom he has never met.

Will and will have a surprising amount in common: neither has siblings and both have self-esteem issues, a snarky sense of humour, caring parents, and a feeling of isolation from others. The boys both find out the hard way that you have to be open to being hurt to experience love and friendship. Life has good possibilities as well as bad ones.

The book isn't perfect: Green's Will and Jane seem familiar types from other books of his - she's very much in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl vein - and the book's ending feels over the top. And if you've no patience for teen angst and self-absorbedness, watch out. But for me the appeal of the characters, feelings and story more than compensated.

The cover of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. Picture: Text

The cover of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. Picture: Text

Mainstream young adult literature featuring explicitly queer central adolescents seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. "Problem novels" focusing on issues teenagers had to deal with were common in the 1970s and 80s.

Homosexuality was one such topic covered, often to very negative effect. In Sandra Scoppettone's Trying Hard to Hear You (1974), both the female narrator and her male best friend fall in love with the same boy, leading to tragedy. It's very much a product of its era.

More recent YA novels have dealt with a range of sexualities and results and while things don't always turn out as well for the characters as they do in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, at least the complexities and varieties of life are being dealt in more varied and realistic ways. Sexuality is one strand in a larger narrative, as it is here and in life.

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This story Winning double dose of Will power first appeared on The Canberra Times.