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Thursday, February 1, 2018

'My Most Excellent Year' by Steve Kluger

From the BLURB:

Best friends and unofficial brothers since they were six, ninth-graders T.C. and Augie have got the world figured out. But that all changes when both friends fall in love for the first time. Enter Al‚. She’s pretty, sassy, and on her way to Harvard. T.C. falls hard, but Al‚ is playing hard to get. Meanwhile, Augie realizes that he’s got a crush on a boy. It’s not so clear to him, but to his family and friends, it’s totally obvious! Told in alternating perspectives, this is the hilarious and touching story of their most excellent year, where these three friends discover love, themselves, and how a little magic and Mary Poppins can go a long way.

‘My Most Excellent Year: A NOVEL OF LOVE, MARY POPPINS, AND FENWAY PARK’ is a junior-YA novel that advanced Middle Grade readers would also enjoy, written in 2009 by American author Steve Kluger.

I actually read this book last year – though “inhaled” might be more accurate. But I needed to sit on it for a bit before writing a review, because I did read it in a fever I wanted to let that break first. Since then I have done a re-read (albeit – a fairly fast one, flicking through to get to my favourite parts) and now I feel I can most confidently say …

This has become a new favourite beloved book for me. Absolutely!

On the surface, this book is trying to do a lot. And at 403-pages, it almost seems too ambitious. Then when you start breaking down the plot, Kluger does indeed seem to be in waaaaaaay over his head.

To begin with; there are three teen narrators, plus the occasional cameo by their adult parents.

There’s Anthony Conigliaro Keller (‘TC’ for short), Alejandra Perez, and Augie Hwong. Ostensibly they’re each narrating using the classroom English assignment, answering a question about their ‘Most Excellent Year’.

The adult cameos are all done in epistolary form – things like Augie’s critic mother, using snippets of her newspaper arts column. But the more interesting (and mini, contained secondary story in itself) comes from TC’s widowed father, Ted, who has an ongoing email exchange with one of TC’s teachers, Lori – which is 100% tentative flirting that morphs into an outright relationship (with a little extra help and advice occasionally, from Augie’s father to Ted). There’s also memos written on ‘The United States Secret Service’ stationary from one Agent Clint to Alejandra, whom he used to guard because her father is an international diplomat.

…. Okay. And that’s JUST the secondary adult characters.

See what I mean about Kluger appearing to throw everything in, *including* the kitchen sink?!

BUT IT WORKS. I promise you.

The teens each have their own distinctive first-person voices and interesting backgrounds/character-arcs, but they also beautifully harmonise together.

TC’s mother died when he was six, and he’s still coming to terms with how to miss her and grieve, without always being sad. He’s also crushing hard on the new girl at school, Alejandra ‘Ale’ and devising a plan to sweep her off her feet – while also becoming a big brother figure to an orphaned young boy called Hucky, who’s almost as big a baseball fan as TC himself.

Augie has designs on being a Broadway star one day, and figuring out his complicated feelings for classmate Andy – and grappling with having to tell his parents how he feels about boys. While Ale is trying to figure out how to break it to her professional politician parents that she’d rather pursue a singing career than a senate one (she’s also grappling with her burgeoning crush on inappropriate TC – who reminds her of a Kennedy brother).

TC and Augie are more like brothers than best friends – to the point that their parents collectively think of them both that way too, and they each have a carved out space in the other’s home for their constant sleepovers. Their friendship began at the age of six, right around when TC lost his mother … and it has grown deeper and stronger ever since. This year – the boys’ Most Excellent Year – they’re each helping the other to figure out their respective loves (Ale and Andy) and their general place in the world.  

So. There is a lot happening here – and these stories and narrators are constantly interchanging and handing the narrative down the line, like a baton relay race that keeps the whole thing moving at a clip. I will say that the arc about orphaned boy Hucky being taken under TC’s wing (and then – by extension – under Augie and his family’s too, and Ale also) does become the orbiting focus by the second-half.

But Kluger covers a lot here. TC and Ale’s unfolding romance – which goes from hostility (on Ale’s part) to begrudging interest and then mortified reciprocation is one finely plucked tune. As is Augie’s realisation of his sexuality and first fluttery (and returned) feelings for classmate Andy.

Augie’s storyline is probably a stand-out, for being so unique in this junior/MG realm. What I loved is that it becomes more than apparent (through email exchanges amongst the parents, and TC’s interiority) that everyone knows Augie is gay, and they’re all excited to see his unfurling feelings for Andy come to light … but they’re also very aware of needing to let Augie come to this realisation himself, and tell them all himself. It’s a beautiful telling, and because Augie is probably the biggest scene-stealer, with the funniest chapters it’s really wonderful how Kluger manages to play his romance (and occasional bump/heartbteak) with Andy on a much more tender and harmonious note.

This novel shouldn’t work. On paper it’s all over the place, and trying to be and do so many things. But Kluger plays it beautifully. Like I said – the fact that each teen narrator (plus their parents, providing filler-context) each gets a turn at moving the story along, it does have a rollickingly good pace. Ale, TC and Augie each have such distinctive voices too – and that’s where Kluger shines, is in his characterisation and ear for voice/dialogue.

‘My Most Excellent Year’ doesn’t just feel like it could have been three books, mashed into one. Realistically Kluger could have taken any one narrative arc and made an entire novel out of it – but putting them all together gives these kids and their stories such robust life … it puts a delicate point on the changes kids go through at this marvellous, ever-moving age when they start defining who they are by what they love. When they start figuring themselves out. It’s honestly, such a glorious 403-pages of tenderness and hilarity, truth and heartache. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I want to read more just like it but, sadly and gladly, I think Steve Kluger and this book are in a league all of their own.


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