I didn’t read Nina LaCour and David Levithan’s You Know Me Well to fall in love. Like any good novel in a giant to-be-read pile, I read it for a mess of reasons, most of them difficult to specify. I know I was drawn to the story: two students from the same high school connect during the San Francisco Pride Festival. I adore stories about queer community and found-family tropes give me the warm fuzzies. Those, I expected, but I wasn’t ready for a full-blown book crush.
I should be clear that my “crush” is largely theoretical. Mostly, I can vividly imagine my high school-self reading this book and loving Katie to bits. We first meet her when she finally has the chance to meet the girl she’s only loved from a distance, but when the big moment comes, she bolts. That’s when she runs into Mark, the other half of the leading duo, and their stories converge. Like most of us, Katie is a mess of contradictions. She’s smart and oblivious, ambitious and flighty. She makes art gorgeous enough to stop pretentious people in their tracks, but cannot comprehend that she might deserve attention. She is funny and honest and desperately afraid of losing a friend who has been all but her sister since they were both children.
On the surface, I have little in common with Katie, but I found myself identifying with her special kind of mess. I know how hard it can be to stay true to yourself when you’re not sure how to define a “self” that’s uniquely yours. I suppose we’ve all had to fight to create an identity, seemingly out of nothing, but Katie’s denial is a special kind of heartbreaking. Most of all, I know what it means to fall in love with an idea. I know what it is to love something or someone who doesn’t really exist and to be terrified of the moment when the idea and reality have to collide. Seventeen-year-old me might not have understood Katie, but I would have loved her all the same.
Beyond Katie and her struggle, I think I fell a little bit in love with You Know Me Well’s entire universe. It was beautiful spending time in a world where every character’s sexuality and gender were celebrated without question, but it was more than that. At least among the characters we meet, this is a world without villains. Characters misunderstand one another, they have partial vision, and want things that other characters cannot offer, but every character has a story. They all have motivations and desires that deserve empathy, and because this is fiction we get a moment to see them in the best possible light. At the same time, this is a world—like our own—where queer community is desperately needed. In backstories and poetry, we learn that too many of these kids come from worlds that do not understand them. Some come from families that don’t even try. But here, inside this world, their Pride community gets to see them for who they really are. We the readers get to know them and love them, contradictions and all.