Let me start with good things, as I am the sort of person who always has an outsized ability to give criticisms without mentioning the positive things.
August felt very familiar to me, as someone who hides away from everyone at least in part because of its deep and numerous scars. In particular, this quote hit me right in the feelings:
"August lost everything and thought that maybe, if she could become someone who didn't have anything to lose, she'd never have to feel that way again."
Fuck me if I didn't spend a lot of years in the same place, both with stuff and with people. Hell, I still flee from folks, and it's Hard not to do. So, I felt a kinship with August.
Next, the slow burn, shy glances, churning feelings, denying of the possibility of another ever feeling something for one, painful longing, hiding, peeking out romance… shit. So good. The moments where they start to take baby steps toward each other? Goooodness. My breath caught in my throat more than once at a touch or a few words. …the lengthy sex at the end was kind of a bit much for me, but, gosh. The hot, heavy, Feelings, tears: yes.
And the loss when Biyu (I'm going to stick with the name she chooses to use at the end) leaves? Real. Devastating.
I'm sure that there's more, and I'll come back and add bits when I think of them, but now I want to move on to what I didn't like; what's eating at me in the near term after completing this read. In no particular order:
First, I think that Biyu should have gone back. Like… I dunno. I know that, like, that's a kind of grim thing in many ways, now that she knows a lot about the future: just as one example, imagine knowing what AIDS will become and then being forced to watch it unfold. Fuuuuck. But also… she had a life, and she lost it; and more importantly, people lost her.
I think that a major theme of this book is finding home where one is. Opening up, taking advantage of the time one has, living and thriving in the space one occupies, because this is our one life; it's no good to just watch in drift by in remaining detached (a lesson I desperately need to remind myself of, repeatedly). I think that it's the lesson that both August and Biyu learn by being with one-another. Both are drifters and both are loath to open up because of the scars they carry, but in finding each other, both become prepared to face the lives that they will lead, whatever those lives may bring (moreover, it's not like Jane's future must be the future that she finds when she meets August; time travel leaves a lot of room for leeway here).
So, Biyu comes to remember that she lost her family—family that she was just getting ready to reconnect with—and that she lost, like, her one and only very dear friend by getting stuck here. She's going home to find them, and to face the life she lost in this holding pattern that mirrors August's.
The hell of it is that I think the book understands that this lesson is hanging in the air when Biyu returns; I think it's why they kill August's uncle (after all, it seemed like he was dead for the whole book, anyway; and now we don't have to feel bad for him and Biyu missing out on the possibility of a deep, meaningful friendship), and why they let every last member of Biyu's family remain alive (how ever improbable), so that the possibility of this reconnection is not lost. This just… feels like a cop-out.
See, because here's the other thing: August's whole thread is also building toward this huge moment of growth: she is loving, and will lose that love, but—and here's the crucial thing—she will not run from that hurt. Past hurts have caused her to turn inward, to shut down, to flee. But this time, she will Feel, she will be brave, she will rely on her support network, and she will remember that there is beauty in what was—even now that it's gone—and that there will be beauty again, for her and Biyu both. She is not doomed to hide from disaster her whole life; she is fated to weather difficult times with the people she loves in the place that she loves. She will survive, and she can only really thrive by being open and present. And, more… Queer love rescued her and Jane both. That's magic.
But then Biyu comes back just as August is realising all of this, and… none of it really matters anymore. August doesn't really have to go there. It feels stunted.
That's kind of the central thing in a lot of my criticism: August gets to have her cake and eat it, too. Like… to be fair, queers fucking Deserve that, and we deserve literature that allows us to feel that satisfaction. But Biyu reappearing at just the right time so that August's fantasies all get to come true? It feels like that makes Biyu simply a tool for the protagonist's fantasies (and us by extension), instead of the complete person that she is. It undercuts her story, and it undercuts August's growth. It's… it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I thought the happy ending would be growth, so it's just sort of strange.
Maybe I'll just mention a few shorter (some of them smaller) things before I get on to my other major criticism.
I'm not sure about the race vibe in this book. I'm not especially qualified to talk about being racialised, so I feel very unsure of myself in writing this, but… I'm going to try. Please feel free to respond with your own thoughts. It felt sort of like her brown roommates were sort of… wise guides for the white woman protagonist (Niko is literally a psychic), and that feels… not great, I guess. I do think they're more fleshed out than simply being tools for the protagonist's use (in contrast with lots of other media), and I do think that McQuiston wants them to be more; I'm just not entirely sure they pull it off.
This is a short one, but it's significant to me personally: where are the trans women in this book? There's a lot of kinds of queers here: a bi woman, a trans guy, a gay boy, a gay drag queen (in fact, a shitton of drag queens), some affirming mentions of different kinds of kink. But there's like, only a small mention on one page about some "women with Adam's apples" being present at an event. At first, I wasn't going to bring up this nit. Like, who cares. Trans women don't need to be in everything; it's fine. But the reason that this feels like an oversight in this case is that this is lesbian erotica, written in 2021, and uh… transphobic women, and especially transphobic queer women, are dominating a lot of discourse. I would really liked to have seen some validation here of trans femme identities. It's def good to have a totally validated trans guy, because fuck knows we need more trans guy representation. And, hell, those same transphobes deny the existence of trans men just as much as trans women, if not moreso. I just… idk. For moments here and there, I was wondering if Biyu was going to end up being a trans woman, but, nah. I just… I was sad not to see myself reflected in a genre that's aimed in my general direction, especially in the context of larger discourse.
Not a huge fan of the "she's only a skeptic because she got hurt once" vein here. Idk. I get that in this world, astrology is true, genuine psychics exist, etc. And, hell, maybe in our world there's some truth in these, too. But, idk. If someone were to say to me, "You're only that way because you're a Virgo," I sure would feel pissed at being so dismissed and condescended to. But probably all Virgos are that way, amirite? Anyway. Don't get me wrong: skepticism as a movement has shown itself to be pretty Fucked; and I don't really want to rain on anyone's parade who gets something significant from astrology, Tarot, séances, and the like. I just hate that, like, as someone who is naturally skeptical of unverifiable claims because of the way they can be used to exert power and influence over others in both large and small ways (see, e.g., the entire history of the Roman Catholic church), I loathe it when someone just chalks that up to, "Oh, you just don't Believe in anything, you're so closed-minded, who hurt you?"
Say Anything is a weird choice. I've never seen it, but I'm told that it's… Not Great, at least when it comes to modeling a healthy relationship that one should aspire to. But like I said, I haven't seen it; I've only heard things. So… who knows.
Everyone seems to aspire to marriage and monogamy; that's really weird.
One last small thing: I'm undecided if our main cast is doing, like… poverty tourism. August has no money, but she's always had a strong safety net in her grandparents, and even inherits $15K (that she just gives away to her boss? more on that below). Wes is a former trust-fund kid who's determined to make it on his own at the moment, but could always run home if he really needed. Isaiah/Annie is an accountant who can afford… A Lot. Myla has an electrical engineering degree, but chooses not to take a lucrative career. Niko's about the only one that actually probably has, like, no wealth (other than, you know, socially wealthy friends). It all has the smell of "temporarily not middle-class," or whatever. Like how August sees a future in which owning a home is a given. That's… weird. It's clear that the book wants its characters to be hard-scrabble poor folks who are finding joy where they're at… I'm just not convinced that they really are that.
Okay, let's tackle the other elephant in the room which ties in with all of this: omigosh the politics. In particular, the class politics. They're so strange.
I think that the moment where everything started to feel very surreal to me was the moment that they decided to save Billy's. Now, don't get me wrong: there's nothing essentially wrong with wanting to save a hangout, to not want to see a neighborhood get gentrified. But the thing is… Billy's is a business, and Billy is an owner, a boss. Billy may not own the land (not until they literally buy it for him), but he owns the wealth of the business, and nothing in the book suggests that he shares any of that with the community or his employees.
So… why the fuck are they saving Billy's? Or, more to the point, why are they trying to raise $100K to give to the business owner? Like… there is so much they could do with that money. They could buy out the landlord themselves and turn Billy's into a cooperatively run place that better benefits its employees and maybe the community. They could raise $100K and use it to help the employees figure out what the hell they're going to do in the wake of the loss of their employer. They could, I dunno, throw a big fucking blowout party to send the place off if they want. But giving it to the guy who owns the place so that the status quo won't shift?
That's what I mean by the book's world being a Liberal one: the happiest outcome imagined is that people just learn to be content with their lives as they are while nothing structural fundamentally changes. We can gesture at other things, but, really, when it's all boiled down, aren't things actually pretty fair and okay as they are? Aren't queers in a better place now than in the seventies (which is surely because of legislative changes)? Don't we all get a fair shake? We'll all get that house with the HOA, because the world as it is now is more-or-less fundamentally fair; we just need to make some small tweaks, like giving the finger to a landlord every now and then; voting for people who are willing to pay lip service to the right ideas, like AOC (who is included in an utterly bizarre drag performance toward the end); and giving $15K of inherited wealth to our Good Bosses to help fight against the Bad Bosses coming in. Trust the system. Sure, that system gleefully let us die by thousands during the height of the AIDS crisis; and, yes, it keeps most of us in poverty today; and, sure, it doesn't really do anything when we lose our homes, our jobs, our health, whatever; and, yes, it's the system responsible for the very gentrification we're fighting; but it's a fundamentally good, functioning system.
This is the domestication, the "blue-stating" of queerness. It makes me rage, it makes me ill, it makes me sad.
I think Biyu is a wonderful case-study of this. At the beginning, we're meant to see her as a radical: someone who threw punches, fought cops, marched in the streets, took direct action for change. A fighter who demanded more from the world. But by the end, it becomes, "Oh, I was just a petty vandal who got in a few fights, is all," and she gets reduced to the dream of owning a home and fighting the HOA in lieu of abolishing private property and fighting the State and Capital. It… it sucks. It's depressing. It guts what queerness was and what it is.
How can we get more when we're not even allowing ourselves to imagine that there is more? More than buying nicer shit, than finding a "good" job, than creating "affordable" housing, than just muddling through. Fucking hell.
There's a couple of restaurants near me in the city where I live that have posters and strap lines nodding toward and celebrating—in their own strange way—historical radical politics: AIM, ACT UP, the ALF, etc. Liberal venues domesticating radical ideas in order to assuage the conscinces of patrons and potential patrons, gutting the heat of those movements in the process—a tale as old as Capital. The uneasy, sad feeling I get when standing in those restaurants is the same feeling I got when watching this book swing and miss on the queer radical politics.
Let me be clear: I gave this book 4/5 for a reason: things in it really spoke to me, and I'd totally give it to other queers to check out. Maybe I just really needed something like this, but that good, good gay love spoke to me; and seeing a book full of queer love with happiness and happy endings? Gosh, the world needs more of that; I need more of that. I just wanted a little more.