BY MICHAEL SHIREY | Russel Middlebrook’s life is in a bit of a rut. While everyone around him seems to have their dating and work life together, Russel finds himself stuck is a series of monotonous hook-ups and multiple dead-end jobs. He is lost, confused, and growing increasingly frustrated — something many readers will immediately relate to. They might even go as far as to call this his quarter-life crisis.
But all that changes when Kevin, Russel’s high school boyfriend, resurfaces. Kevin has recently moved to Seattle with his new boyfriend, who proves to only be a minor speed bump as Kevin and Russel gravitate toward each other once again. Things continue to heat up as the two go down a humorous — albeit predictable — path together before their reuniting finally comes to fruition.
Kevin isn’t the only one ruffling Russel’s feathers. While working as a lifeguard, he saves vibrant Vernie Rose from drowning. Author Brent Hartinger’s newest and strongest character, Rose vows to return the favor and is determined to “save Russel’s life.” Through a series of mishaps — in settings from elegant dinner parties to blind dates to exciting new career paths — she slowly but surely gives Russel’s life a little more direction.
What you didn’t know you didn’t know about growing up
It’s unfortunate that Rose’s fresh story is often overshadowed by the Kevin plot line, which is a far more familiar one with few new insights offered. Equally disappointing is the limited role played by Russel’s best friends, Min and Gunnar –– whom we met in Hartinger’s earlier “Geography Club” but are absent for most of this book.
But all of them play their part in Russel’s story, which unfolds at a pleasant pace complete with one well-deserved happy ending after another. In the end, “The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know” will leave readers in their 20s with a sense of assurance. Older readers might well find themselves yearning for the good old days of youth.
Hartinger first won the hearts of YA readers with “Geography Club,” which follows Russel and a group of gay students as they navigate high school, forming a secret GSA disguised as a geography club. The book was well received for its positive portrayal of young gay and lesbian relationships, and it went on to spawn four sequels (including “The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know”) and was adapted into a movie in 2013.
What makes “The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know” unique is that it takes a young adult character like Russel and throws him into a very adult world — a rare literary transition handled more or less with grace. Equally rare is a mainstream, well-written LGBT-themed book geared at the 20-something audience.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is getting to see how Russel’s fellow “Geography Club” alums Min, Gunnar, and Kevin have grown up since the original novel. Kevin, who opted to break up with Russel and stay in the closet at the end of “Geography Club,” starts off the novel in a healthy relationship — a more than welcome sign of progress.
But not everything in this transition works. During one of the novel’s racier sex scenes, a discussion of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, is brought up. The conversation reads more like a bad public service announcement than an actual informed encounter, leaving the reader feeling cheated.
But minor hiccups aside, “The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know” overall is a success — and hopefully the first of many books of its genre. Hartinger plans to release the next chapter in Russel’s life, “Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams,” in mid-2015.
THE THING I DIDN’T KNOW I DIDN’T KNOW | By Brent Hartinger | BK Books | $14; 256 pages