Okay. Join me in a flashback for a second. I was with my friend Sam at Barnes and Noble about a year ago, trying to dip my toe back into the YA genre after reading a slew of dull adult contemporary that left my spirit shriveled up and dead. I was perusing the section while she went to look through some poetry books, when, as usual, an employee came up and asked me if I needed any help.
I’m not shy, but I am independent in stores to a weird degree, so I very rarely swallow my pride and ask for help when I can’t find something. But there was no way I was going to swallow down all the sickly heterosexual side romance that I could practically smell oozing from the shelves, so I asked if she knew any good LGBT young adult reads. And she was so excited when she pointed me to We Are the Ants.
WARNING! This review is free of plot spoilers, but there are what I guess you could call sort of mood spoilers (as in, whether the ending is happy or sad). So if even those kinds of spoilers turn you off, maybe find a vaguer review).
The story follows Henry, a guy in his late teens who is, quite frankly, having the shittiest time ever. His mom’s cooking talents are being wasted on a waitressing job, his grandmother is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and the asshole that makes his life hell at school is ushering him into sex between classes. Henry’s boyfriend Jesse just committed suicide for reasons he has no idea of, and it’s distanced him from their mutual best friend Audrey, leaving Henry to deal with all this heaviness by himself.
Oh, and there’s one other thing. On a relatively frequent basis, since he was thirteen, Henry’s been getting abducted by aliens.
He’s not sure why the aliens keep picking him up and randomly dropping him off without his clothes on (although he’s pretty sure they aren’t anally probing him), but lately something’s been different about these occasional abductions. They’ve presented him with a big, shiny button. The purpose of this button? To stop the world from ending in 144 days. And it’s up to Henry to decide whether to press it and save the earth from the impending apocalypse.
For a lot of people, it’d be a no-brainer. But Henry’s had more than enough reasons to believe the world isn’t worth saving. At first, he’s dead-set on leaving the button alone and saying goodbye to the universe in 144 days. But pretty soon, good stuff starts happening again, a concept that’s been a foreign one for a while. He sparks up a friendship with Audrey again. His brother and his girlfriend are expecting a baby. And there’s a new guy at school named Diego who’s a little quirky, more than a little secretive, but bonds with Henry almost immediately.
But these new developments won’t bring Jesse back. They won’t make him stop grieving, and feel less empty and sad. So is pushing the button really worth it, if the pain is just going to continue? Does the good weigh out the bad? Is it worth the risk to open up the opportunity for new good things to enter Henry’s life if he knows that it’s just as likely to lose them?
The book asks a lot of important questions, and I mean a lot. I really admired how the aliens managed to take a backseat to the soul of the novel while not being reduced to silly background characters. In fact, they reminded me quite a bit of the aliens from Arrival, at least in their unique communication technique and their seemingly-genuine desire to help humanity.
But really, the aliens are only the thing that sets the plot off, not the things that keep it going. Henry is a startlingly relatable character, and his grieving process is portrayed as so raw and genuine that it’s impossible to dislike him even through his bad decisions and the sharp tongue he often uses against people who just want to help.
The story itself is woven from several subplots with Henry as the maypole they all wrap around:
- Trying to figure out why Jesse committed suicide, and whether or not it had anything to do with Henry himself.
- Wondering whether continuing to sleep with aforementioned asshole jock is worth the emotional abuse.
- Re-forging his friendship with Audrey and figuring out where he fits in her life after their best friend is dead.
- Meeting Diego and debating whether or not a new relationship with him is possible without smothering him in Jesse’s shadow.
- Stepping back and looking at the big picture to decide if the world is a place Henry thinks is worth saving, from… whatever the aliens know that he doesn’t.
For a novice writer, all of these subplots may overstuff the story and make it difficult to follow, but everything fit together so seamlessly it felt like a Renaissance painting; everywhere I looked, there was a new corner of the story to find beauty in.
Henry also possesses a dry, cynical sense of humor that Shaun David Hutchinson obviously enjoys writing, giving us gems like:
“I still don’t know what to get Diego for Christmas.”
“You’ll figure it out, Henry.”
“And if I don’t?”
Audrey took my arm and led me toward the parking lot. “Then give him the gift every horny teenage boy wants for Christmas.”
“I love you, Henry.”
“I think he already has an Xbox, Audrey.”
When a book can make me literally laugh out loud and cry beyond eye-watering, I call it a good read.
I honestly can’t praise this book enough. To put this in some perspective, while I was sitting in the Dutch Bros, crying while about 80% done with the book, ‘How to Save a Life’ by The Fray came on and fit with Henry’s feelings for Jesse so heartbreakingly perfectly that I let out a genuine sob and was immediately judged by the twelve year old kid sitting with his dad at the table next to mine. But those were tears well spent, my friends.
And since I know every queer reader is going to scan this review for this specific information: there is a happy ending, and no gay boys were killed in the production of this plot. So read on!
gossip girl Kell