Despite my high expectations, “Lilacs” actually turned out to be pretty mediocre experience. For starters, its casual and nearly non-stop usage of gendered slurs is incredibly off-putting. The entire book is sprinkled with them, and they often arrive hand-in-hand with the blithe reinforcement of gender roles–“real men eat steak” and such–which caused me to roll my eyes so hard they nearly fell out of my head. Every single one of them comes across as gratuitous. There’s no negative consequences for any of the characters using these words or phrases; they’re just taken as normal. It’s disappointing to say the least.
Worse yet, the author frequently chooses to use words which are flagrantly offensive and hurtful when far more benign ones would do. One of the two most egregious examples of this arrive bright an early: Barely two pages in, the protagonist, Gene, bemoans his bad luck at spending a boring day with his mother when he’d rather be down at the beach, so at least he could “molest” one of the cute men down there. Cue me staring wide-eyed at my Kindle and shouting, “Say what!?!”
Look, I know the author meant to use this word in jest, but when the English language contains so many other words which would’ve had the same effect–annoy, pester, hit on, flirt with, follow, dog–and instead chooses to use one which has absolutely horrible connotations associated with it, this smacks of lazy writing to me. You could also make the argument that it subtly reinforces the pervasive argument in our culture of gay male = rapist, which is a super fucked-up “argument” that needs to die a fiery death. And this is at the very start of the book!
Another instance of this happens in the latter half of the book when Gene’s mother, Anna, is having a conversation with him where he’s being a bit rude. She says to his face–I kid you not–“I miss the days when I could get away with beating you.” This is meant as a joke, and she smiles as she says it. Gene doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it either, and even has an “Ugh, mom!” moment as if she’s just said he used to enjoy running around with diapers on his head instead of bemoaning the days when it was socially acceptable to hit him. Again, I know the intent here is to be funny, but what the actual fuck!?! Why would you ever put this into your book!? Especially when so many of our gay, queer and trans youth face horrible abuse every single day?
The plot itself is also a huge let-down. The entire thing feels very contrived and predictable, and everything happening in the world is basically just an excuse for the protagonist and his love interest to end up together. There was very little here which surprised me, which is a shame because it feels like a good idea which just never quite got enough momentum. There are things about this book I liked: For instance, the historical aspect was pretty interesting. I would’ve liked to hear much more about the secret gay love affair the two protagonists uncover. I also liked most of the author’s stylistic choices (or her editor’s); the book had good flow to it and the dialogue was well-paced even though a lot of it came off sounding contrived. The romance between the two protagonists was simple, but satisfying. That said, I would have liked to see it fleshed out even further, rather than spending so much time on the whole “they’re not going to get together because they refuse to talk to each other” trope. (The justification for which was “men don’t ever talk to each other enough!”, because of course that’s a gender role which needs reinforcing…)
So yeah. Overall, the book gets a big ol’ shrug from me. It had a lot of wasted potential and gets bogged down with a bunch of weird stuff that doesn’t even need to be in there. Give it a pass.