Review: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian


It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.

Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.

Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance…until she falls for Reza and they start dating.

Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.

As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart–and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

Like a Love Story is the kind of book I wish I read as a teen when I was still navigating the pathways of my sexuality and needed the kindness of a friend who sits with you in comfort by the fire and can’t change what’s wrong but reminds you that you’re not on your own.

When I finished this book, I felt somehow at once endlessly heavy and weightless. My chest still trills with something I cannot quite name. Recognition, and sorrow, and hope all at once. The whole world still feels shaped around this story, a warm welcoming place ready to receive me, whenever I longed to open the book and run my fingers under the words, feeling for the hope I will always find sheltered there.

So, what’s this book about?

It’s 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and Reza is an Iranian closeted teen who’s moved to New York from Toronto “by way of Tehran,” and is living with his mother and new stepfather and stepbrother.

Reza did not want to die of AIDS—the desire to not die has never been so searing. Dark images of men pierced by the illness tore at him, and every nightmare that shook him carried the same subliminal four-letter warning. The fear sloshed over Reza, each wave colder than the last, and he might have floated on, believing those dull miseries were all there was, if he hadn’t met Art and Judy and a small bird of hope took flight. His attraction to Art—this dreamer who taught him to hope for a different life—made Reza’s legs tense to flee, to scramble back to the safety of denial. Reza tries to cut his desires from him by dating Judy, and his life becomes a wobbling cup of lies that was always on the verge of spilling. But with the help of Stephen (Judy’s uncle who is a gay activist and has AIDS, and in whose mind, ugly things are made beautiful), the unaccustomed feeling of community, and yes, even Madonna, Reza’s courage, once shriveled by fear, rises in his chest.

Reza only hopes that, in his blundering, he hadn’t severed ties that might otherwise have been stimulated to warmth and affection again, and that his friendship with Judy would beat with a new rhythm.

The most important four-letter word in our history will always be LOVE. That’s what we are fighting for. That’s who we are. Love is our legacy.

Like a Love Story is a deeply affecting novel—at once gutting and filled with unfathomable tenderness—that made my heart sing like a plucked string. There are countless avenues to tears in this book, and I strongly doubt many readers—as cynical and unyielding as they may be—will get through it dry-eyed themselves.

Among all the things that Like a Love Story seeks and succeeds to be, it’s a love letter to queerness, to activism, to self-expression, to the people who love despite scorn and condemnation and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved, and yes, to Madonna.

Like a Love Story rings—harsh, accusing, vibrant—through every page, and it’s clear that the author is making a point about the way history can steamroll over anyone who falls outside the norm. “Our history. Who we are. They won’t teach it in schools. They don’t want us to have a history. They don’t see us,” writes Nazemian, “They don’t know we are another country, with invisible borders, that we are a people.” The novel is grounded in the realities of daily life in the time period, where people—women, people of color and queer people—paid the heavy toll for the scathing indifference of governments and the pitiless profiteering of pharmaceutical companies. This devastation signals a time capsule, except that things have changed so little for marginalized communities that it’s hard to consign even the most hyperbolic discrimination to the past.

A bright knife of grief plunges through my heart at the thought of the trials and tribulations our communities have faced and are still facing. And, reading this book then spending more time researching the historical figures mentioned, it seemed to me almost impossible that these people, so unspeakably brave, could have lived at all with such frail, flimsy stuff as skin keeping blood and breath safe inside their bodies—and not something else, something more. Our history will always carry a shard of sorrow within it, but to borrow Stephen’s words, the world can change. If you fight hard enough for that change. Don’t forget that.”

The novel’s strength, though, is in the voices Nazemian gives his characters. His characters are so achingly human; they have the virtues of their flaws, and the flaws of their virtues, and their realistic relationships accurately depicts current issues of gender, race, and class. The first-person narration alternates between Reza, Art and Judy, occasionally interrupted by hearty and thought-provoking passages from “The Queer 101 Notecards” Stephen made for Art that range from advice about high school to Madonna.

The characters’ journeys are resonant—and their feelings reached me in waves. It was almost like being stripped to my skin, and I saw myself in their eyes.

Art was all heat and volatility, he was passion, but not violence. There were so many wants inside him that he doubted there was room for blood in his body. His character radiates such a stark and roaring vitality that could lift the darkness almost palpably from the hearts of people around him. But in the furnace of Art’s grief, anger kindled. The unfairness of what his community is continuously made to endure made him want to burn and shrill and rage if it’ll make the world take note. And it’s that boundless passion—which has been nurtured by Stephen whom Art had always seen as a father figure—that had woken Reza to the understanding that for all his life he had been hollow. It’s Art who taught Reza that it’s okay to want—as terrifying as want may be.

Judy’s character sung with its own vibration. She shone with good nature and a stunning liveliness, and I admired how she gradually settles into herself, growing untouched by the words people with ill hearts kept ready on their tongues, a way to show their judgment of the shape of her body. Judy also treats her friends to the full truth of her kindness. She and Art have been friends for such long stretches of their lives; they grew up in one another’s pockets. Though, truthfully, I couldn’t help but react with a sort of angry bewilderment to the way Judy handled Reza’s coming out. However much I sympathized with her, I couldn’t find within me the faintest flicker of blame towards Reza. Fear and denial do strange things, and for most of us, coming out is a weight laid heavily across our shoulders like an iron yoke.

Reza’s character struck a deep chord within me. It hit me, with a pang of familiarity, how worn thin Reza was with fear. How his heart failed a little at the thought of people finding out the truth about him. How he chose to remain diffident and nearly invisible, and how at the root of all his reasons was fear—frantic, sharp, cracking like a blow. It’s what snagged at me the most. The nameless horror of the consequences of being yourself. Because sometimes, it seems that there is just no way to tell people closed to us the truth and make them understand it, that hearts that loved boys or girls or everyone otherwise both or in-between are no more different than any other heart.

Like a Love Story also includes a romance, and I surprisingly relished how that element feels almost secondary, despite being necessary for the plot. It’s a welcome subversive take on the coming-of-age romance. You meet people, and if you’re lucky enough, they sink in your chest like stones into water, spreading sand as ripples in a pond. They may stay in your life forever, or you will part, once, or twice, and then be divided anew, whether by choice or by fate. Life is nothing but achingly bittersweet. And so was Like a Love Story’s ending.

Unique, moving, and filled with flawed and yet real characters, this novel is an absolute must for any library serving teens.

3 thoughts on “Review: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

  1. This is such a great, detailed review! I’ve been curious about this book because of the Iranian rep and queer intersections, and you’ve definitely made me even more excited about it!


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