Finding Empathy in Kiss & Tell

Review:

Kiss & Tell

By Adib Khorram

Rating: 4.5/5

Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Young Adult Fiction

QUILTBAG Main Character: Yes

QUILTBAG Minor Character: Yes

Main Character of Color: No

Bechdel Test: No

Summary: Hunter Drake is your average queer white Canadian teenager. He loves video games, hockey, his family, and pranking his friends. He’s dealing with a bad break up while also navigating a possible new crush. But then his ex decides to post their sexts online. Anyone might feel like their life is falling apart after this kind of betrayal but for Hunter it’s worse. Because Hunter isn’t just your average teen. He’s also one of the five boys who make up the hit musical sensation Kiss & Tell. With The Label pressuring him to get good press, he ends up beginning a not-so-fake relationship with his new crush, Kaivan, who happens to be in the band opening for Kiss & Tell’s latest tour. Hunter is being pulled in different directions from The Label, his friends, and himself. Can he find a balance between what is expected of him and who he really is?

A Little Disclaimer:

I was given an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This in no way altered my opinion of the book nor my review.

Let’s Get A Little Deep:

I never really got the point of hating on boy bands. I defended my love of Backstreet Boys as a teen and continue to do so now. I saw them in concert a few years ago, and it was a delight. The general reason most people give for hating on generic poppy boy bands is that they are unoriginal or that their music is generic. What I tend to hear when someone says this is: I think singing about universal (or at least common) emotions is boring, and I don’t like to have fun.

But as much as I’ve always rolled my eyes at people shit-talking boy bands and their fans, I’ve always hated the way in which these artists are put on pedestals, expected to be the perfect, inoffensive yet desirable objects with no thoughts or personalities outside what they show on stage. The humanity behind the music has always been more interesting to me than what was plastered on for the cameras. Adib Khorram’s Kiss & Tell is a story of what happens behind the bright lights, the meet-and-greets, and the interviews. What is it like to not just be in that spotlight while also queer in a world that so quickly demonizes queer idenity?

Hunter never really imagined that his life would be international tours and backstage meet-and-greets. For much of his life, he assumed he’d be on the ice, winning hockey tournaments and playing in the major league. But a tragic accident on the ice left him with a bum knee and some time on his hands. When the song he and his four friends wrote ends up going viral, he finds  himself in the studio, then on tour, and now as one of the biggest names in pop music.

Right before their second tour for their new album comes out, Hunter calls it quits with his long time boyfriend. Although he promises himself he needs a break from romance, he finds himself enticed by Kaivan, the queer Iranian member of Kiss & Tell’s opening act. When Hunter’s sexts end up all over the internet, the Label quickly scrambles to reinvent Hunter. They change his wardrobe, start asking him do things like “skate more gay,” and ask him to be seen publicly dating Kaivan. Hunter doesn’t mind that last part because he and Kaivan decide from the beginning that it’s not fake for them. But the pressure to be the “right kind of gay” for the band, to create the third album, and to be the prefect queer rolemodel are starting to weigh on Hunter. Something is going to break, will it be Hunter or everything else?

The genius part of this novel is the mix of news articles, interviews, and tweets that are slid neatly between each chapter. Khorram uses these moments to emphasize the way in which Hunter’s life is under a constant microscope. Celebrities of all stripes have their lives under constant scrutiny; it must be easy to feel like an ant under a magnifying glass, the beams of light going from warm to scalding.

In a lot of ways, Hunter’s celebrity status makes his already privileged life even more so. He has money, he has a platform, he has a microphone, and people who will listen. Yet he feels, correctly, that every aspect of his queerness is constantly being tweeked and adjusted to fit with both the Label’s ideals and with what is palatable to a mostly straight audience. One misstep and suddenly Hunter goes from beloved boy band member to the subject of articles like “how to talk to your children about Hunter Drake and anal sex.” The mere fact of his active sex life, a completely normal thing for most teens his age, becomes the source of ire, disgust, and a little too much glee for adults who should know better.

But even while Hunter is dealing with his own problems, he starts to become aware that his bandmates, most of whom aren’t white, have their own media-related struggles. Kaivan, Hunter’s new boyfriend, reminds Hunter several times that things aren’t exactly sunshine and roses for a queer Iranian American in the spotlight. While Hunter is desperate to find his own footing, he ends up missing how much other people in his life are struggling as well. In doing so, he also misses opportunities to find help, strength, and a community he is so desperately seeking.

Kiss & Tell is a brilliant and beautiful novel that forces us to remember that the people we idolize are, in fact, humans with their own flaws and merits. While Hunter loses himself to the point where he forgets that others might also be struggling, so too do fans often forget that celebrities, particularly underage celebrities, are often not the faces they put on for the crowd. When we remember this, we are able to have more empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.

You can find Kiss & Tell in bookstores on Tuesday, March 22nd. I suggest preordering a copy from your favorite queer-owned indie bookstore!

Thanks for going a little deep with me! I post reviews every other Thursday. Did you love Kiss & Tell? Leave a comment telling me your favorite boy band. You can also find me on Instagram @booked.with.grace and on Twitter @gwasserst! Special thanks to Yasi (@ynbushehri) for editing my posts.

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