My first time getting it in the butt was kind of weird. I think it’s going to be weird for everyone’s first time, though.
Meet Jack Rothman. He’s seventeen and loves partying, makeup and boys – sometimes all at the same time. His sex life makes him the hot topic for the high school gossip machine. But who cares? Like Jack always says, ‘it could be worse’.
He doesn’t actually expect that to come true.
But after Jack starts writing an online sex advice column, the mysterious love letters he’s been getting take a turn for the creepy. Jack’s secret admirer knows everything: where he’s hanging out, who he’s sleeping with, who his mum is dating. They claim they love Jack, but not his unashamedly queer lifestyle. They need him to curb his sexuality, or they’ll force him.
As the pressure mounts, Jack must unmask his stalker before their obsession becomes genuinely dangerous…
17-year-old Jack Rothman is gay, and he has a reputation for being a “slut”. Jack knew what that word meant to the people in his private New York City high school, how they wielded it as both insult and fact. It mattered very little to them that the stories they told about his sex life were almost always exaggerated, and never supported by the truth. Jack learned not to let the gossip scorch him; instead, it was a kind of vengeance to drape all the rumors about himself like a shield and add still more luster to his reputation.
Jack begins writing a sex-positive advice column for his best friend’s—Jenna’s—news blog, and students looking for help start crowding his inbox like dogs in their eagerness, tongues lolling. But over Jack, every second, hangs the terror of his new stalker, and when the pink origami love notes they leave in Jack’s locker become more and more disturbingly possessive, Jack’s desperate fury is gone and only horror is left.
“We all get to be the kind of queer people we want to be—and your column serves a purpose. It shows people we are sexual beings, and that we have autonomy over our own bodies and lives. And it sounds like that’s exactly what this note-writer is trying to take from you.”
L.C. Rosen, as a writer, is thrillingly daring. His interrogation of various topics is refreshingly rigorous, as sharp as breaking sticks, and his provocations—about sex, sexuality and gender identity—resonate through to the last page.
While the novel is grounded in familiar YA terrain, this isn’t your average, young-adult coming-of-age story. Rosen goes where few YA authors seldom venture, and he does so with an unrelenting grace—not to mention a scalding emotional honesty. He openly confronts issues of homophobia, gay stereotypes, and the fetishization of gay men (especially by cishet women), while deftly handling topics of asexuality, consent and even BDSM. And it’s ultimately Rosen’s unfiltered voice that lends the novel a page-turning excitement. Rosen has produced a bold work of self-discovery that’s both shockingly intimate and insistently universal, and the YA landscape is a better place for it.
Jack of Hearts is a triumph on several fronts—the way the author generously crafts his madcap sprawl of quirky characters, their voices, the conversational yet profound tone of the book, the gloriously outlandish developments. But what I relished most about Jack of Hearts was the way it generously offers validation to the fears and doubts and passions of young people, without judgment.
The characters are larger than life, and they have to be in order to carry Jack of Hearts’ flashes of piercing humor and profanity-laden dialogue. They are also wonderfully diverse (Jenna is Latina; Ben is black, gay and fat), and the author makes the most of their volatile chemistry and quirks. Jack’s voice—in particular—pops, sparks, jabs and jolts, and it pulled a smile out of some deep place inside me. He’s a dynamic, utterly fascinating character worth spending time with, and Rosen is giving the reader that chance.
Jack has a naturally vivid force to him. His character’s combination of precociously wise and fearlessly impulsive is charming, but Jack’s voice shines brightest in its pure, naked vulnerability. Jack’s forcefully cultivated indifference towards scathing gossip is heartbreaking, and the way he has of dwelling on the phrase “it could be worse” like a manic mantra—jokingly, casually, but with an unbearable hint of bruised and brutal resignation—quickly brushes away the veil of casual banter that he uses to conceal his true feelings. There is nothing casual about what Jack is made to endure, and, although the reader is allowed to experience many moments of vicarious joy, there’s no escaping the sense of apprehension that begins to creep through the pages. The wicked relish with which everyone dismissed Jack’s fears about his stalker—from his classmates to even his principle—smote my heart. So did the knowledge that no matter what you do, people will always find a way to put you in a box and slam a label on the lid in order to make you easier to understand, easier to contain, and that they will do anything to preserve their comfort and maintain their innocence, including looking the other way and sealing their hearts against your pain.
“Maybe, like Pattyn said, if I were more “subtle,” blended in, I wouldn’t have attracted Kaitlyn’s attentions in the first place. But I think he had it backward. It’s not about making myself less amazing so I blend in—it’s about making sure everyone around me sparkles with their own shade of glitter, that they feel as amazing as I do. And once I tell them that—and yeah, I tell them that through sex advice, but it’s still what I’m telling them—then I can get back to sleep.”
There is very little not to love in this novel. If I had to point out a few quibbles, the first would be that the ultimate reveal fell a bit flat and I found myself torn between dissatisfaction and relief, and the second was that I was uncomfortable with the novel’s casual dismiss of the deep repercussions of a sexual relationship between a minor and a much older college student. I’m not naïve to think that this doesn’t happen in real life, but I wish it was acknowledged instead of being glossed over, and, I think the fact that it wasn’t felt like a missed opportunity to put just a bit more meat on Jack of Hearts’ already superb bones.
That said, I really hope Jack of Hearts finds a wide audience of teens who, reading this book, will doubtless experience the same startling flash of recognition that I did, as if a breathtaking, hidden spotlight had been trained without warning on their faces. Highly recommended!
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