Three years ago, Tanner Scott’s family relocated from California to Utah, a move that nudged the bisexual teen temporarily back into the closet. Now, with one semester of high school to go, and no obstacles between him and out-of-state college freedom, Tanner plans to coast through his remaining classes and clear out of Utah.
But when his best friend Autumn dares him to take Provo High’s prestigious Seminar—where honor roll students diligently toil to draft a book in a semester—Tanner can’t resist going against his better judgment and having a go, if only to prove to Autumn how silly the whole thing is. Writing a book in four months sounds simple. Four months is an eternity.
It turns out, Tanner is only partly right: four months is a long time. After all, it takes only one second for him to notice Sebastian Brother, the Mormon prodigy who sold his own Seminar novel the year before and who now mentors the class. And it takes less than a month for Tanner to fall completely in love with him.
When I read reviews for Autoboyography, I had expected a cute and fluffy story that would melt my heart. Autoboyography follows Tanner, a bisexual teen, who enrols in a class to draft a novel in a semester and meets Sebastian Brother, a Mormon prodigy, and is about the undeniable attraction the two boys share. A queer romance that was hyped up to be adorable and heart-melty and lovely? I was on board immediately.
Perhaps this is a case of mismatched expectations (and friends, we really have to talk about when it is safe to call books ‘cute’ and ‘fluffy’ because this book was certainly not), but I did not find Autoboyography fluffy and cute. I have to admit: I’m confused over the utter and overwhelming adoration for this book. Part of it is because it’s a me-thing (which I acknowledge wholeheartedly and will discuss in my review), and part of it because this book has problems that I struggle to get past.
The most intense insta-love I’ve ever read
Insta-love can be either a good or bad thing, and I acknowledge that it is a matter of preference. In general, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with insta-love (‘instant love’). I believe insta-love exists: the powerful and mutual attraction between two people. I understand why people dislike insta-love, particularly if the romance is poorly developed and if there is no connection beyond that initial moment of attraction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and, in some cases, insta-love can be an interesting and compelling trope that may examine how a relationship develops over time.
Thus, a disclaimer: The depiction of insta-love in Autoboyography was one of the most intense I’ve ever read. For some people, this may be cute and swoony, but I personally found it to be a bit too much for my liking. Therefore, if extremely intense and overwhelming depictions of insta-love are not your thing, then this book may not be for you. Conversely, if you love depictions of strong attraction (which is valid!) or if they don’t bother you very much, then you might like Autoboyography. Both positions are valid.
Not as cute and fluffy as people say
All that I had heard about Autoboyography prior to reading it was that the book was so cute and swoony and fluffy. Thus, when I read this book, I was… surprised. I felt a little misled by what everyone had been saying about this book. I think we need to be cautious about calling any book that depicts joy and love to be automatically a ‘cute’ and ‘fluffy’ book. In my eyes, a ‘fluffy’ book is one that depicts a romance where the characters are safe from violence and harm; it’s a book that can be thoroughly enjoyed without triggering real-life fears. Romance stories can, and sometimes should, represent conflicting and tumultuous experiences, and I don’t believe that all romances should be ‘fluffy’. However, I just think we should be careful with how we label books, and that we should be cautious about immediately labelling any book, especially those that depict a queer romance, as ‘cute’ and ‘fluffy’, when in actuality Autoboyography is more than just a cute romance. If I was surprised, it is also likely that others may go into this book expecting a fluffy book, when in actuality, it examines some challenging topics as well.
Autoboyography may be a contemporary romance between two boys, but it also explores tough topics such as being gay when you are part of a religion that believes that queer relationships are a sin (a reality that many queer teens face, and is associated with many genuine and complex feelings and fears?), having to keep their relationship a secret because of the ever-present fear of being outed (which is a fear that both Sebastian and Tanner have throughout the book, particularly because they live in a very conservative town and being outed would have terrible consequences), and grappling with one’s sexual identity and faith. In addition, Sebastian, who is gay and Mormon, faces the fear of being excommunicated and disowned by his family. Although Autoboyography does have its cute and fluffy moments, I don’t think this is a ‘cute’ and ‘fluffy’ book at all, and we should be careful of labelling it as such.
So, what is Autoboyography then? Autoboyography is a contemporary romance between two queer boys: two boys who come from two different worlds – one has grown up in a more liberal and accepting household where his family accepts his bisexual identity, and the other has grown up Mormon, believes that being gay is a sin (and initially outright refuses to call himself ‘gay’), and resists who he is. It examines how faith shapes the way that we perceive the world, others, and love, and the conflict that arises when these two worlds collide.
The poorly developed romance was … iffy
Extending the points above, my biggest issue with Autoboyography was that the romance was poorly developed. I wouldn’t have minded the insta-love/physical attraction so much, intense as it may be, if Tanner and Sebastian’s relationship developed or grew beyond just that, but it just… doesn’t. For a decently sized story, there was a lot of physical intimacy and tension, but I wasn’t sold on the emotional intimacy. It felt like an intense and physical infatuation, and not at all like the love that it was presented to be.
Which brings me to my next point: I found the romance… iffy. Because I didn’t feel like Tanner and Sebastian’s relationship had any substance beyond physical attraction, I felt uncomfortable with how pushy and persistent Tanner was with Sebastian. Sebastian is a Mormon, his family and almost everyone that he knows is Mormon, and, his community has excommunicated and ostracised ex-Mormon people for being gay. Not only would Tanner pursuing a romance with Sebastian risk outing the latter, but it would mean that Sebastian would have to pay the price for it, a price he was not wholly prepared to pay. Despite the risks that Sebastian faces (risks that are extremely valid and real), Tanner nonetheless pursues a relationship with Sebastian without much careful thought or consideration of the challenging position that Sebastian would be in. The authors frame Tanner’s persistence as an outcome of his strong attraction, but it made me uncomfortable, considering the significant implications for Sebastian and the fact that Tanner and Sebastian barely know each other. I mean, if this story was told from Sebastian’s point of view and was about his struggle with his gay identity and his religious beliefs, I would have felt really weird about a love interest (i.e., Tanner) being pushy. I felt really weird that we were supposed to perceive Tanner’s persistence and behaviour as cute.
Furthermore, Tanner’s parents call him out and warn Tanner that pursuing a relationship with Sebastian might put Sebastian at risk, to which Tanner is like, ‘yeah… okay… but… I can’t help my feelings’. My issue is not that love isn’t something that is worth fighting for – and I do believe that love is worth fighting for! and all queer people are deserving of love, acceptance, support, and the opportunity to be who they are – but these issues were not explored with the sensitivity and nuance that they deserve. I also do believe that love is incredibly important and being true to who you love is important but there really are contexts in which ‘love conquers all!’ is more complex than that. Yes, I think it’s important to challenge anti-queer rhetoric within institutions and acknowledge that the harm that such beliefs and rhetoric causes (which the book does, somewhat), but I also think it’s also important to be sensitive of Sebastian’s challenging and complex position of being Mormon and being gay and his conflict between the two. Packaging this story into something that is just love and fluff and clean without really grappling with the complexity of these issues just feels like a disservice to how fraught this topic can be.
Let’s talk about Autumn, who deserved so much better
As well as loose plot threads that didn’t see fruition despite them being framed as important pieces of the story (what happened to the prom that was hyped up in the book so much?), I was incredibly frustrated by the treatment of Autumn, Tanner’s best friend. It didn’t bother me that Autumn was presented as a female character that was ‘unlikeable’ – that was fine. However, nothing rivalled how ludicrous and how painfully unnecessary a specific scene in the book was. Spoilers in the next section, although I think this is a spoiler you should go in (should you choose to read this book) with both eyes open.
Partway through the story, Tanner and Sebastian break off their relationship. Distraught by this, the authors describe Tanner going into a weird lucid daze from his grief, goes to Autumn’s house, and – they have sex. Not only was this just so… uncomfortable, this was an issue for several reasons. First, Autumn is in love with Tanner. Second, Tanner knows that Autumn has feelings for him. Third, Autumn and Tanner once kissed (or, made out) in the past. Fourth, Autumn is a virgin. Fifth, I am really tired of these tropes where grief-stricken characters do extremely reckless things — and in Autoboyography, Tanner has reckless sex with his best friend who loves him even though he doesn’t love her. Okay, sure, sometimes relationship fallout is messy and sometimes people make bad choices, but… why? Why was this scene necessary? Why was the mess further compounded when Autumn, later on, takes responsibility for Tanner’s actions for having sex with her? Why is Autumn being treated as collateral for Tanner and Sebastian’s relationship and their development?
I just… I just don’t understand this. Why was this scene was necessary? What was the point of this? And why does no one talk about this scene, which was a significant turning point in the book, but was just so wrong and never properly addressed, challenged, scrutinised? I just don’t understand it. And it frustrates me that others have neglected to address this and have instead focused on how cute this was. This scene, how Autumn was treated and the implications, were far from cute. It was horrible, it didn’t have the development nor was it examined with a critical perspective to justify it, and it just made me so uncomfortable.
MY CONCLUSION: NOT RECOMMENDED
Listen, I really did wish that I loved this book, because nothing brings me more joy than queer kids being happy and finding love. Unfortunately, I really struggled to get past these issues. This book was just not for me at all.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A bisexual boy falls in love with a gay Mormon boy.
Genre: young adult contemporary romance
Trigger/content warning: institutionalised/religious anti-gay rhetoric, excommunication, anti-bi rhetoric
A last note before closing: If you are bi, gay, and/or religious, and you felt seen by this book and its representation, then that is absolutely valid and it is not my intent to take that away from you or undermine your feelings towards this book, its characters, and the romance. I am open to respectful discussion about this book and my interpretation of this book with readers and other book reviewers.