This new novel from Lambda Literary Award winner Abdi Nazemian (The Walk-In Closet) is a fresh and important addition to the queer YA canon. Set in New York City in 1989, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, Like a Love Story follows a trio of teens as they navigate heartthrobs and heartaches alongside the hysteria and activism that arose in the wake of the epidemic.
Tehran-born Reza is new to America and to the posh private school his stepfather sends him to. Avoiding his stepbrother Saadi’s clique of jocks and jerks, Reza instead makes friends with an aspiring fashion designer, Judy, and her best friend, a Madonna-obsessed punker named Art – the school’s only out gay student. Art’s bold presence both attracts and dismays the closeted Reza, who is deeply afraid of being outed by association. But a series of romantic mishaps and entanglements will connect these three in ways they definitely do not expect.
In other hands, this love triangle could have come off as typical YA fare, but Iranian-born Nazemian (who has dual Canadian and American citizenship) enlivens the structure with his period setting. And though Madonna does loom large throughout, Like a Love Story is far from a checklist of pop-culture phenomena and pre-cellphone assignations. Instead, the book focuses on the ways these teens come to feel the urgency of activism in a world not only beset by AIDS but also by the indifference of so many adults to the humanity of those suffering around them.
Reza, Judy, and Art learn just how personal the political can become when Judy’s uncle Stephen, whose commitment to activism has only increased as his health has failed, invites the group to join in various ACT UP protests. The fights of 1989 – for access to health care, respect for diversity, and a demand that entrenched powers acknowledge the urgent realities of ordinary people – will be intimately familiar to teens reading in 2019.
For adult readers who remember how gay identity and this disease seemed inextricably entwined in those years, the portrait of Reza as a scared gay teen rings very true. With such a serious backdrop, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Like a Love Story is that through Reza’s journey to self-acceptance, Nazemian not only accurately evokes this all-pervasive fear of AIDS but also manages to offer a positive vision of sexuality that celebrates pleasure and connection.
Like a Love Story interweaves compelling social drama and a political call to action that is at once historical and vitally relevant today.