Monday, December 06, 2010

The Perfect Family by Kathryn Shay

blurb via
What happens to the "perfect family" when the future suddenly changes in the most unexpected way? Seventeen-year old Jamie Davidson doesn't think being gay should be such a big deal...until he comes out to his parents and friends. Even as Jamie celebrates no longer needing to hide his true self and looks forward to the excitement of openly dating another boy, the entire Davidson family is thrown into turmoil. Jamie's father Mike can't reconcile his religious beliefs with his son's sexuality. His brother Brian is harassed by his jock buddies and angry at Jamie for complicating all their lives. Maggie, his mother, fears being able to protect her son while struggling to save her crumbling marriage. And Jamie feels guilty for the unhappiness his disclosure has caused. Every member of their “perfect family” must search their hearts and souls to reconnect with each other in this honest, heartwarming, and hopeful look at the redemptive power of love and family.

Oh dear lord, where to start with this review? This is an amazing story of love, forgiveness, and healing within a family. It examines the role that religion and faith plays in an individual’s life as well as its influence over an entire community. And here, religion and faith are portrayed as two different things. It examines the relationships within the family and how they change when each family member has different feelings that need to be acknowledged. How a mother’s feeling that nobody can do as well for her baby, not even her husband, can tear into a marriage. And how societal intolerance can contribute to a teen’s overwhelming feelings of rejection and despair.

Jamie Davidson is gay. He hasn’t come out to anyone yet, but he’s starting to feel more and more uncomfortable with the lie that he’s living. He notes to himself many times that he’s “performing”. Jamie is the 17 year old younger son in a wonderfully close and loving family. He has an 18 year old older brother, and his parents are still completely in love after all these years. As Jamie becomes more and more uncomfortable with his performances, he happens to meet another guy, Luke – a friend of his brother’s who plays baseball on the same high school team. They each realize the other’s interest and form a close friendship that begins to become more. They decide together to come out to their parents and families.

The Davidson family is close, but there are stresses. The biggest one is religion. Mike is a devout Catholic, embracing the very rigid stance of the church with wholehearted love, and while she is Catholic, Maggie can’t seem to stop herself from questioning a lot of the church’s doctrines on social mores. She has begun to seek out other denominations to try to fulfill her desire to be close to God without having to bow to the Catholic church's inflexibility, which was the cause of so much childhood sadness for her. Jamie and his brother Brian have always been especially close, best friends, sharing everything. It’s really pained Jamie to keep this fundamental piece of information about himself from his brother.

When Jamie finally comes out to his folks, his dad has a really tough time reconciling his son being gay with his Catholic faith. Maggie, while devastated as well, tries very hard to accept Jamie just for who he is – not wrong or sinful. Just Jamie. His brother, Brian, the jock, gets a lot of flak from his teammates. The family priest wants Mike and Maggie to consider sending Jamie to a “reprogramming” camp, which Mike considers, and Maggie outright opposes. Their divergent views on the fundamentals of their religion and faith, and how Jamie fits into that drive a big wedge between them. They try to work things out, but their marriage faces a big crisis. Through all of it, though, their love for Jamie, Brian, and each other never wavers.

In this book, Shay examines a teen’s homosexuality from every angle. From Jamie’s feelings, so beautifully expressed through his poetry, to his brother’s feelings. Brian feels confused, not sure why Jamie is gay. He feels conflicted, because as a devout Catholic, his religion tells him that this is wrong. He feels hurt, because although they shared almost everything, he was the last in the family to find out about Jamie. And he feels angry, because one of his friends is Jamie’s new boyfriend, and the rest of his friends are making his life difficult for him, and he feels he has little to no control over any of it. So much so that he is unfaithful to his girlfriend, whom he dearly loves, simply in an effort to prove how het his really is. She won’t tolerate his infidelity, and dumps him.

Mike is horribly conflicted. He’s a wonderful father, he loves his kids, he wants to accept Jamie, but he’s completely torn by his devotion to his religion. The people he deals with, including Luke’s father, don’t make it any easier. None of the adults in their circle of friends are very accepting – Mike is removed from a teaching position within the church, his beloved priest wants him to send his boy away, and his wife doesn’t believe that he has Jamie’s best interests at heart; that he can’t separate being a father from being a Catholic.

Maggie is also torn apart. She loves both her sons unconditionally, and the rift between then is driving her crazy, making her sad and depressed, and frustrating her because she can't fix it. She loves her husband tremendously, but feels conflicted over his seeming intolerance of who their son is. In addition, she’s trying to come to terms with her own family history – all brought about by her own parent’s religious devotion to the Catholic church (note: I really wanted to say fanaticism here, but it just didn’t seem right to do so). She wants to be in control of it all so that she can manage the issue better.

And Jamie and Luke are simply trying to come to terms with who they are, and how they now fit into society, all while falling in love for the first time. For Jamie, it’s freeing to not hide who he is, but it doesn’t come without his share of problems. He heads up the school’s blood drive, but when it comes time for him to donate, the intrusive questions mean that he can’t donate. His relationship with Luke costs him his best friend, who can’t see her way to accepting what the church tells her is wrong. And his relationships with his father and brother are equally strained – they all want to just love one another but there is too much stress to simply let it go. He wants to enjoy the experience of falling in love with his very first boyfriend, but outside influences, especially Luke’s father, make it horrendously difficult. He also experiences such guilt because he feels like he convinced Luke to come out, and Luke had such backlash. So much so, that his homelife becomes too much, and Luke attempts suicide. His father is amazingly intolerant, even in the fcae of Luke’s attempted suicide, all in the name of the church.

Lest you think this book is a big indictment of the Catholic church, I really didn’t come away from the book with that feeling. I think Shay portrays it as inflexible, as a doxology that is driven by not one’s own beliefs, but as one that forces its followers to conform to church ideology. Additionally, while I thought that Father Peter was intolerant based upon his beliefs, I felt his compassion for the family, and their situation. I could tell he wanted to make things better for them – it was just that his way of doing so didn’t sit well with Maggie, Jamie, and even Mike to some extent. Mike was torn between the teachings of the church and his love for his son and his desire for his son to not have to change. Maggie has a scene with the priest, where she tells him she has found a different church to attend.
“Then you’re giving up on your faith?”

“No, never on faith. But on your church. It’s not an institution I can embrace anymore.”

The priest stood. “I’m sorry to hear that. I came today because I want you to be healthy and happy. I want that for all God’s people.”
I think that Shay goes to tremendous lengths to differentiate between one’s religion and one’s faith in this book. Never did Maggie or Jamie lose their faith in God. They lost their reliance on Catholicism as an organized religion, preferring to find one that allowed them to speak to God directly, and feel good about their faith, rather than persecuted for it. Religion is such a sensitive issue, and I think that Shay handled it very well.

High school is such a sensitive time. Kids want to fit in. Conformity is if not encouraged, it’s certainly the easy way around many of life’s problems. My own son is feeling conflicted about homosexuality, when in the past he has always been very sensitive to anyone different than him. Kids are discovering who they are, and their feelings about life’s major issues. Shay shows well how both acceptance and intolerance can affect young men and women just learning who they really are.

This isn’t a lighthearted book; Shay’s never are. She as always, handles controversial, emotional, and difficult topics with sensitivity, with a 360 degree view, and with beautifully drawn characters that speak to the reader.
Shay has strayed from Berkley and Harlequin to publish this with Bold Strokes books, a publisher of LGBTQ general and genre fiction. This book is 313 trade size pages, and manages to cover an awful lot of ground in that page count. It never feels rushed, it never feels like anyone’s views were compromised by a desire to complete the story. Shay writes with perfect pacing. Her story of a family’s love is one that I highly recommend for anyone.


  1. Wow, Lori, what a wonderful review. I can see you understood the underlying conflicts and themes well, and I appreciate your insights into the book. I was really trying to give a fair view of being gay and the coming out process, so your "360" comment was meaningful to me. Thanks so much for reading and understaning this novel. As you might guess, it's the book of my heart.
    Kathy Shay

  2. Great review Lori. Sounds like a great, fulfilling book :) It's not my usual read, but I might have to look out for it :)

  3. You definitely should, Nath. And yes, it's not your usual read, but it's well worth it.

    Kathy, so glad you stopped by! I know it's the book of your heart - and it shows! When I was done, I put it on my high school teacher hubby's nightstand and ordered him to read it. Maybe I can cajole him into a review, too? Who knows.


Have you read it? What do you think?

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