By Hal Patnott
Stop by the Butler Center to take a look at our copy of It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.
When the sun rose at Mill Point Beach, they listened to the waves “surrounded by an eruption of colors.” That sunrise is what Mike wants to remember when he lets himself think about Sean, not all the bad things that came after. The summer before Mike’s freshman year of high school, his family moves from Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin to Somerdale, Virginia, a small, oceanside town with mild winters. Unlike his little sister Toby, Mike doesn’t mind the move or the megachurch their father insists they attend. Although one of his classmates, Victor, accuses him of staring and bullies him for no reason, Mike doesn’t completely hate his new school. He loves French class–that’s where he meets Sean. When Mike and Sean decide to partner for a class project, they start to explore their feelings for one another. Their attraction is a huge secret that Mike must hide from his conservative parents and Victor, who will jump at any chance to make his life hell.
It Looks Like This is a far-from-uplifting coming-of-age story. No one knows about Mike’s doomed relationship with Sean until Victor films them kissing on the beach on New Year’s Eve and calls their parents. Even Mike’s friends–who eventually stand by him at the end of the book–casually throw around homophobic slurs. Sean’s father responds with violence when he learns about his son’s relationship. Mike’s parents coerce him into attending conversion therapy camp, where he learns all the “negatives” of being a “practicing homosexual,” such as “depression, drug use, and relationship instability.” His roommate tells their discussion group, “There are all these obstacles to being a homosexual already, and that’s before you consider that it goes against the obvious purpose of sex. I’m just saying that maybe the natural world is trying to tell you something.” While Mike does escape the camp, he returns home to learn that Sean got drunk and died in an all too familiar car crash. It takes Sean’s death for Mike’s parents to start trying to support him. Decades after Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982) broke the mold of books about gay and lesbian youth by offering a happy ending, It Looks Like This feels a bit like a return to the bad old days. Certainly, It Looks Like This offers a realistic portrayal of the isolation of being an LGBTQ teen in a small, conservative town, but the progress Mike makes toward self-acceptance in the resolution doesn’t fully overcome the overwhelming sense of hopelessness present throughout the novel.