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Timothy Woodward’s debut novel If I Told You So (Kensington) chronicles experiences familiar to many queer folks: the nervous, terrified thrill of accepting yourself, of coming out, of falling in love for the first time and realizing that who you are is not a passing phase. For sixteen-year-old Sean Jackson, these are packed into one summer, and his narration takes readers on a nostalgic journey full of best friends and first times.
After Sean’s father informs him that he has arranged for Sean to spend the summer working and living with him in Georgia, Sean strikes out in his small hometown of Bell Cove to find a job. Determined to avoid his father, Sean is desperate enough to try The Pink Cone, which he previously nixed because “only girls work there” and it is owned by “Fabulous Renée,” Bell Cove’s only out lesbian. Renée hires him on the spot, opening the main plotline of the novel.
With The Pink Cone comes a cast of new characters, including Becky, a whip-smart New York City native, and Jay, The Pink Cone’s attractive manager.
Sean is quickly caught between his girlfriend Lisa, who is away for the summer, and Jay. Pleased with Jay’s attention, Sean jumps headfirst into a relationship with him, despite Becky warning him that Jay may be too good to be true. Woodward’s choice to have Sean narrate the novel was a smart one; while the reader experiences a kind of creeping dramatic irony, aware that Becky is probably right and Sean is falling too fast, insight into Sean’s thoughts provides an opportunity to let go of cynicism and indulge in a little hopeful romance.
A particularly sound aspect of If I Told You So lies in the relationships between Sean and the novel’s other prominent characters. As Lisa’s distance for the summer and Sean’s acceptance of his sexuality drive Sean further from her, he grows closer to Becky, who is the first person he comes out to. Sean’s father appears in Bell Cove, straining their already-rocky relationship — and yet bringing Sean and his mother together. Jay seems to distance himself, and Sean becomes friends with Matt, a boy from his high school.
Though refreshing in its realism and unflinching willingness to portray teenage infatuation, If I Told You So is also a frustrating novel to work through. Sean’s treatment of his girlfriend and his blind trust when it comes to Jay had this reviewer putting her copy down to play a few violent rounds of Fruit Ninja.
Lisa, Sean’s sweet and supportive girlfriend, is shunted aside when Becky pries Sean’s sexuality out of him, and though the situation is understandable, she is strung along for a sizeable portion of the novel, leaving Sean less sympathetic in the wake of their unavoidable breakup. Jay feels one-dimensional and makes only fleeting appearances, which will keep some readers from understanding Sean’s sweeping crush. As the object of Sean’s bright affections, it’s strange that Jay plays such a small role in the text itself, and ultimately this gives Jay the aftertaste of a plot device.
This novel falls short in developing its main romance, but Woodward clearly cares deeply for both his characters and his audience. If I Told You So is rich in detail and, at its strongest, it is a pleasing and honest slice of life that ends on a sweet note, reminding readers that in order to find yourself, you have to be willing to look.
If I Told You So
By Timothy Woodward
Paperback, 9780758274885, 256 pp.