Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by Janet E. Cameron (Hachette Books, 1 March 2013)
I can't believe how good this book is–and I can't believe it's this good and yet so few people have read it or even heard of it. It's keenly observed, achingly beautiful, shockingly real. I fell in love with every moment of reading it. It's a coming-of-age, coming out story, and–I don't consider this a spoiler, really, because it's important for me to know these things going in–there's homophobic violence. The gay guy gets beaten up. But it doesn't feel trite in the slightest.
In Riverside, Nova Scotia, Stephen Shulevitz realises he has fallen in love with his best friend, Mark. They're sitting in the basement watching TV together, and there's a moment when he imagines himself kissing Mark–and that's the moment when the world ends. But as the book goes on, you find out that Stephen has had lots of moments like this before. He's known for years that there was something different about himself, and as for Mark–well. Stephen has been best friends with Mark for eight years. And now, they're nearing the end of high school. In a few months, Stephen will be out of here. It turns out a lot can happen in a few months.
What sets this book apart? The prose. The prose is so warm and so heartfelt and every sentence gives me that feeling they talked about in the History Boys: "it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours". It's like I'm holding Stephen Shulevitz' hand the whole way through this book. Stephen is so vividly drawn, I'm going to keep his character in my heart for a long time to come.
To me, this is the gay guy counterpart of THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST. If you loved MISEDUCATION, you'll probably love this too, and vice versa. CINNAMON TOAST and MISEDUCATION are both about growing up gay in a small rural town in the 1980s. And just like MISEDUCATION, CINNAMON TOAST really gets it. It just nails the experience of being a queer teenager, the isolation, the fear, the falling in love with your straight best friend whom you desperately hope against all odds might reciprocate your feelings, despite the giant flashing signs saying NO. CINNAMON TOAST contains the same sort of slow, unbearably poignant unravelling as MISEDUCATION. The yearnings of adolescence, the confusion and anger and despair, distilled. The inexorable march into adulthood and the increasing clarity of perspective that comes with that. And perhaps the promise of something better, finally.
I loved the ending. In fact I would give anything to read a whole other book about Stephen at college. The author has deliberately left the ending a bit open, but it's still definitely a hopeful one.
One thing I didn't appreciate was how at one point, Stephen keeps grabbing random girls and touching them without their permission at a party. I wasn't sure what the point of it was, and it was presented in such an offhand way that it disturbed me. Being a gay guy doesn't entitle you to women's bodies. This is something that frustrates me particularly because I do see it happen a fair bit in real life. If this were any other book that part would probably have annoyed me so much I wouldn't think the book deserved more than three stars, but I just love the rest of this book way too much. So I'm knocking half a star off for that. Otherwise this is undoubtedly a five-star book.