Book Review: "Honestly Ben" by Bill Konigsberg
I’ve had Bill Konigsberg’s Honestly Ben on pre-order since I first heard it was on Amazon months ago. I devoured it pretty quickly and I’m sad it’s over. The novel excels at telling a story I imagine many teens go through–dealing with expectations, labels, success (or lack of) and everything else that goes into modern teen life.
Honestly Ben picks up just a few weeks after Openly Straight ends. Ben’s back at school after holiday break. In short order he finds out he’s getting a prestigious scholarship award, he meets a girl he really likes and that he misses Rafe. We also find out so much more about the pressure Ben puts on himself. In Openly Straight, which was from Rafe’s point of view, we only got what Ben said. Now it’s clear how much Ben’s family, especially his Dad, puts on him and how that translates into his behavior.
I love what Bill did with this book. At it’s core, this is a book about labels–the ones we put on ourselves and ones we get from others. Ben just wants to be Ben though and as the book progresses he works hard to bring his true self to light. The journey isn’t an easy one and I suspect Ben’s dialogue with himself is one a lot of teens have today.
Part of this book could be quite controversial for some, and yet I think it depicts real life. Ben acknowledges his attraction to girls but, at least so far in his life, his only male attraction is to Rafe. He doesn’t think he’s gay, not even bi. He can’t explain why Rafe is the only guy he’s attracted to, but that’s what it is. Rafe tries to push him to label himself, but Ben bristles at that. Of course, bi-erasure is a big topic in m/m romance these days, but the book addresses that as well because Ben’s uncle was bi and one of the characters points out that Ben needs to choose. As Konigsberg said in a recent blog post, “Ben, not me, is dealing with a world in which everyone wants to put him in a box, and he’s saying, “Wait. Those boxes don’t feel right to me.”
Kudos to Konigsberg for taking this stand on labels. We can’t tell people what label they should use, as much as we’d like to, and we certainly can’t force people to pick a label before they’re ready.
Ben’s relationship with Hannah (the girl he likes) and Rafe are just a part of this story. The scholarship award puts him in a tough spot too. He does more research for his speech than ever before and learns things he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Then there’s the expectations from his dad. As Ben learns more about himself across the weeks, the more he knows he can’t be–and doesn’t want to be–the man his dad is. On the side of all this is his interactions with the baseball team and what that does to him.
Konigsberg blends all of Ben’s storylines together so well. It’s amazing how it’s all balanced so well and how there’s still room for other side stories, like what Toby does (which I won’t spoil here). This is a masterful piece of YA literature that teens and adult alike can get so much out of. I’m glad he decided to give us this sequel and take the deep dive on Ben. While there are many teens who come out and define themselves publicly, which is great. With this book though, there’s something out there for the teens how don’t know how they define themselves and the struggles that can come along with that.
I’d love to see more of Ben and Rafe, and yet not. This book ends in a good place, but if there can be more I know I’d pounce on the pre-order button as soon as there was one.