My review of Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff, a young adult contemporary romance told from the dual perspective of a dungeons and dragons leading artsy girl and a computer game playing metalhead as they learn who they are by navigating their online and school spaces as well as each other, published by Balzer + Bray on May 27, 2014.Goodreads
From the acclaimed author of Brooklyn, Burning comes Guy in Real Life, an achingly real and profoundly moving love story about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.
It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.
But they don't.
This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other's lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn't belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren't in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play-at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends-and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.
Your experience with Guy in Real Life, in my opinion, will depend on how you react to Lesh, one of the narrator but essentially the main character. Before you even read my review, I'd suggest reading an excerpt to see whether you like his PoV.
1. (+) Lesh, the protagonist - The thing I liked about Lesh is that he's shy and quiet and rather socially awkward. In a book that's playing around with gender roles and stereotypes, I found it interesting to see the male main character and potential romantic interest to be depicted this way and have the female start up most of their interactions. Lesh doesn't quite fit in with school and even some of his friends, so he spends a lot of time with his headphones in, blasting metal music to avoid the crowd. He's not a very good student because he's not motivated... but when he's playing the MMO, he's quite motivated to level up his characters. He's in short a very realistic version of a guy his age, I'd imagine, especially given some of his actions towards Lana. Lana helps Lesh question his position at home and elsewhere, and it's a treat to see him open up and realize what's most important.
2. (+) Svetlana, the other narrator - I hesitate to call Svetlana the other protagonist/main character if only because it seemed like Lesh had more character growth and the book revolved around him (e.g. the title). Lana gets plenty of page time, but even the other PoV from the MMO character has more to do with Lesh. Anyway, Lana is an interesting character. She's got an activity wheel to signal to her family what she's doing so that they don't bother her. She embroiders her skirts and has sketchbooks full of lifelike monsters for her next dungeons and dragons quest. She lives in the attic of her large house, loves Bjork and hates soccer. She's a wonderfully realized version of an artsy gamer girl with plenty of quirks to make her her own character.
3. (+) Setting - When you read the acknowledgments section, Steve Brezenoff thanks the school for being shown around... And it's clear that he's got a clear picture of how things are arranged there and also in Saint Paul. The culture there - the enthusiasm for soccer from Lana's parents; the park that Lana shows Lesh; the way class distinctions are easily marked along the houses and neighborhoods.
4. (+) Romance - In my small description of the book, I wrote that this was a YA contemporary romance, but it prioritizes self-discovery over the romance. Lana starts off to Lesh as this sort of manicpixiedreamgirl, her hair an ethereal color and everything about her stunning him. She transitions into idol, friend, and more as the book goes on and Lesh begins to learn more of Lana and not the girl he's projected into his gaming world. What I particularly liked about the romance was how it took time to develop. He's a sophomore, she's a senior. They didn't meet under the best circumstances but through a bunch of awkward, yet strangely intimate lunches together, they begin to get to know each other... and from there things grow.
5. (+) Discussion - Probably one of my favorite parts of this book was how much of it lends itself for discussion. Not just on how so many art forms like video and computer games can take on a similar form to that of a novel, but also on gender politics, roles, stereotypes and sexism.... and the different ways the games themselves were compared and contrasted. The most interesting to me was the discussion on gender and role-playing and how that interacted with the computer games and their school space.
6. (+) Gaming culture - The nostalgia I had while reading this book! Something most of you probably don't know about me: I played a lot of computer games, including MMOs, when I was younger because of my brothers. I grew up with Dark Ages of Camelot and Everquest. While reading this novel, particularly Lesh's sections, I was strongly, strongly reminded of those days. Brezenoff does an excellent job with the lingo (camping bodies, grouping, the guild raids, etc.) and establishing the cultures of the individual races in the game and the setting of the game itself, especially since he uses the PoVs of the MMO characters. The little comments he added were authentic to the gaming culture that I knew (though incidentally, I created male characters all the time and it was never a controversy)... and I've never played Dungeons and Dragons, but now I'd really like to at least try D&D one day.
7. (+) Characters - One of the most awesome aspects of this book is how well done the characters are. And probably the most consistent aspect of the comparison to "Rowell meets Green" is the quirky characters. Brezenoff allows all of his characters enough page time to let them shine in a both good and bad way - I don't particularly like Lesh's friends, but I can't deny that they read true to the character Brezenoff had established. He didn't skimp on the character flaws either.
8. (+) Writing - Brezenoff had to manage multiple PoVs: Svetlana's, Lesh's, and those of the two online characters Lesh chooses. Each one sounds unique to that character's personality and this book was simply a delight to read because the writing was smooth and humorous and well done.
9. (+/-) Pacing - Probably the only thing I disliked about this book was getting bored while reading because it was kind of slow, especially at the start.
10. (+) The Cover - A perfect way to describe the romance + gaming culture aspects + the Sara Zarr quote to emphasize self-discovery? Definitely one of the better contemporary covers I've seen.
It's cliche to say, but the Goodreads description & marketing was probably correct: this book is a lot like Rainbow Rowell meets John Green. Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl in particular - substitute the way Rowell inserted fanfiction into her narrative with sections on an MMO character - and blend that with the dual perspective from Eleanor and Park. John Green and Rowell for the quirky characters and self-realization. If you have ever enjoyed gaming culture or are curious about it, you will want to check out this novel. If you're looking for your next unique contemporary read, look no further than one that blends gaming culture narratives with teenage school and romance story lines. Quirky and interesting.