Emily Horner’s A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend (2010) is glorious.
Cass Meyer, bicyclist, pacifist, Quaker, and high school student, is facing a world without her best friend, Julia, following Julia’s death in a car accident. Julia had been writing a top secret musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. Her boyfriend, Oliver, decides to produce the musical when he discovers the script and sheet music. Unfortunately, Oliver casts as the lead Heather, the girl who spent middle school taunting Cass with a homophobic edge. Cass isn’t really sure whether she likes girls or not anyway, but she knows that there are elements to her relationship with Julia at which she hasn’t really taken a clear look, and she knows she can’t stick around for the summer watching Heather rehearsing Julia’s musical. That’s when Cass sets off on her bike on a mission to take Julia’s ashes from Illinois to California, where they’d planned to go together that summer.
Horner splits the narrative into then and now, between that desperate bike ride and Cass’ return to work on the musical after all. And it’s a wonderful novel for that duality, for messing with what are generally single stock standard narratives (high school musical! road trip!), and for refusing for either of those narratives to go according to script. Cass doesn’t get to be sure of herself, we as an audience don’t get to be sure of her. Cass has to adjust to a Heather who has gone from a bully to a person who very much wants to be held accountable for her wrongdoings, which is great, because people are complicated and mean girls are never just mean girls. Julia gets to take on new kinds of meaning after her death, or maybe Cass just has to recognise what was already there.
There are no clear-cut, easy messages here. This is not a guidebook about how to survive high school, or how to survive high school while queer, or what to do when your best friend dies. It’s not about coming out, and it’s not about how suffering and grief make you a better person. It’s about recognising that humanity is rich and strange, and honesty is way more important than being able to distill a sole and packagable truth.
The only critiques I would make are that there was a little by way of confusing dialogue, and some dialogue that would have been easier to follow if it had been tagged with a few more so-and-so saids. I was a initially little uncomfortable with a bunch of kids largely coded as white putting on a musical set in feudal Japan, but Horner ended up including a recognition or critique of that internal to the story, which I appreciated.
One of my favourite things about this book is that its protagonist didn’t have to choose between her religion and her sexuality. I love that she lives with both, and with all the doubts and uncertainty she has about the divine and about her orientation, rather than utterly rejecting one in the face of the other. I’ve only read a couple of other YA novels that ride this line that allows their protags to be queer and religious, and I didn’t like them nearly as much. (For the record, for the curious, these were Nothing Pink by Mark Hardy, which has a Christian, Vincent, and Gravity by Leanne Lieberman, about an Orthodox Jew called Ellie.) I’ve previously made it clear how important I think it is to have narratives about young people who won’t give up either of their sexuality or their faith, and I was glad to see not just Cass but two of the other queer characters refusing to compromise not only their own thinking and selves, but the fact that they still have a lot of growing and thinking and puzzling to do about these matters, and they want to take their time. Nothing’s clear cut, and everything’s honest, and that’s fantastic.
Also, Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad was totally sweet.
Five stars, and I can’t wait for Ms Horner’s next book.