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.
This book could be one of the most important books published in recent years, if it manages to spark the debates that it is perfectly placed to talk about. It is full of humour, is uplifting, is packed with social commentary, it talks about sex and relationships, and it’s also a thriller – it has everything.
But let’s focus on the thing that everyone wants to talk about…
It is “graphic” in it’s descriptions of sex, depending on your frame of reference, because it depends on what you’re used to. I mean, I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s Telany – this books ain’t got nothing on that! I didn’t find it especially graphic but it is a book for teenagers, and has teenagers characters and going into it readers should be aware of the graphic nature of some sexual descriptions. If that isn’t your thing, don’t read it.
Some reviewers have commented that they didn’t find the book realistic, because “sensible” teenagers don’t behave like the characters. I know trashing teenagers is a bloodsport that so many people love, but let’s give it a rest. Just because you like sex does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Just because you drink or go to parties does not mean you’re not “sensible”. Yes, many of the characters do some questionable things that that occasionally regret in the morning (who doesn’t regret a raging hangover the next day!) but that is part of growing up and learning. It’s a part of learning that even us “sensible” adults are still doing in our 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond. At work I am surround by young people, in their late teens and early twenties. These are “sensible” young people who are studying at one of the best universities in the world, and while I have no idea of the intimate details (to the level of this book) of what they get up to in the privacy of their rooms, I can guarantee you that this book accurately represents what some teenagers are like.
Not all teenagers are the same, they are not one homogenous block and do not all have the same interests, desires, pastimes. They do not all need the same level of support.
Many MANY teenagers will not like this book (as, judging by some reviews on Goodreads, many adults will not either), but let’s stop pretending that teenagers aren’t like the characters in this book, and that many young people won’t identify with them.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but it seems it has to be time and again, that you don’t need to identify with a character – and agree with everything they do – in order to enjoy a book. You don’t need to be like Jack in order to love this book (I managed it). There is so much more to this book than just graphic sex scenes, so I’m going to move on now.
This book repeatedly brings up the subject of consent, and works through the layers of it really well. It talks about not being pressured by society to have sex just because everyone else seems to be doing it. It talks about not being pressured by a partner to do anything that you’re not 100% comfortable with. It talks about how sex should be a constant dialogue, making sure that you are both comfortable with what is happening at all times, and how it’s okay to stop at any point if you don’t feel comfortable.
There are moments when some characters don’t behave with much thought for their safety, such as getting so drunk they don’t remember how they got home. I’ve already addressed above how situations such as this do happen as part of human growth (and don’t just happen to teenagers), and I found parts like this realistic and in keeping with the characters personality and approach to life.
A key aspect of this books success is that it somehow manages to preach a message, without feeling like the reader is being told what to do or think. The advice columns that Jack writes do feel like lessons, but they’re kinda supposed to due to what they are – the rest of the book manages to give the reader a sense of who these characters are, and the ways in which they mess up and try to fix things again, without it coming across like the author is giving a sermon.
Don’t be too gay
The most important aspect (for me) is how this book addresses homophobia – including the internalised homophobia of some gay characters. This was an absolute breath of fresh air in a book, and something that needs to be said loud so we can start to talk about it.
Too often, LBGTQ+ content is sanitised before it is allowed to be put out into the world, and this seems especially true in the past, and true of YA content. I hope that we are now turning a corner when we can be more honest about the lives of LGBTQ+ people, and our voices can be heard. However, we are far from out of the straight woods yet. In 2018 a gay film won an Oscar after it stripped out all but the merest hints of sex (yes, I know many people think Call Me By Your Name has a lot of sexual content, but read the book and then come and talk to me about how let down we were by the director). There is a sense in much LGBTQ+ media that we have received acceptance from the world when it comes to love, but only if we don’t talk about sex, only if we don’t conform to stereotypes, only if we are indistinguishable from everyone else in the straight cis world. Honestly, it’s exhausting! It effectively puts LGBTQ+ people back into the closet, where they cannot be the true authentic versions of themselves. What does this have to do with Jack of Hearts (and other parts)? Well, that is something at the heart of the book, it is at it’s very core and runs throughout. Jack puts himself out into the world as someone who conforms to a lot of the stereotypes people have about gay men, and he struggles against both straight people and some gay people who think he “is giving gays a bad name”. Jack is being asked to change who he is, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of a society that would rather gay men are quiet and never have sex (or certainly never talk about it).
I hope this book finds its way onto the YA shelves of bookshops, libraries, and schools – as well as into the hands of adults who will love it just as much. It’s an important book that needs to be read.
Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) is out in the US and UK in eBook on 30th October 2018. It’s out in paperback in the UK in February 2019. You can preorder now: