David Levithan's "Two Boys Kissing" — long-listed for the National Book Award — kicks you in the gut from Page 1. His narrator, a Greek chorus of gay men who died during the AIDS epidemic, sets the tear-jerking tone in the book's first sentences.
"You can't know what it is like for us now — you will always be one step behind. Be thankful for that," Levithan writes. "You can't know what it was like for us then — you will always be one step ahead. Be thankful for that, too."
"Two Boys Kissing'' was inspired both by the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate streamed footage of him kissing another man, and by Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello, who, shortly after Clementi's suicide, proudly set a Guinness world record for longest kiss. The novel follows the quest of two young men who want to break the longest-kiss record outside in front of their high school — and on YouTube in front of the world. The story flashes between the two kissers and the characters who are loosely tied to them — friends, spectators, teachers, and parents, all of whom are moved and changed by their display.
The Greek chorus is responsible for the narrative, but frequently pauses the story to remind us of their role in the tale. Levithan doesn't let us forget.
"We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother's or your grandmother's best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. . . . We do not want to haunt you too somberly. We don't want our legacy to be gravitas. You wouldn't want to live your life like that, and you won't want to be remembered like that, either. Your mistake would be to find our commonalty in our dying. The living part mattered more."
At the heart of Levithan's tale are Craig and Harry, exes-turned-friends (with some lingering feelings) who decide to attempt the world's longest kiss after a boy named Tariq becomes the victim of a hate crime.
The story is an unexpected nail-biter; you'll find yourself gasping when it seems that Craig and Harry might pass out before making their 32-hour goal. And you'll fall in love with the supporting players in their orbit, such as their all-knowing friend Smita and the characters who watch them commit the act from afar, like Neil and Peter, a young couple in love who consider their own romance while watching the kiss online.
Levithan, whose books include "Every Day," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" (with co-author Rachel Cohn), and "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," which he wrote with the master of the good cry, John Green, gives us wonderful characters in "Two Boys Kissing." But the power is in the narration. In the beginning, the Greek Chorus feels heavy-handed — or maybe too dramatic — but soon it becomes clear that the tone is just right, because Craig and Harry are, in fact, changing the world.
Some younger readers might miss out on the cultural references, especially more subtle allusions to the AIDS epidemic. Like the best young adult books, this one should be discussed with grown-ups and read more than once.
Massachusetts author Sara Farizan's sharp and moving debut, "If You Could Be Mine," also offers a look at a same-sex romance, although her characters live in Iran where breaking kissing records in front of a crowd isn't an option.
For Sahar, the studious, self-aware, but naive narrator of Farizan's novel, having a sex change is the only way, at least in her mind, to really be with her soul mate.
Sahar has been in love with her BFF, Nasrin, since they were little. Now that they're nearly adults, they realize they will have to end their secret kissing sessions so that Nasrin can couple up with an appropriate suitor.
Surprisingly this realization leads Sahar to consider gender-reassignment surgery because being gay does not fly in her world. As smart as Sahar might be, the ramifications of her plan to become a man don't quite register. It takes a community to help her come to terms with what it means to be transgender. Only then does Sahar understand the limitations of the often-selfish Nasrin.
Farizan's novel, which sometimes reads like a letter to an American pen pal (she goes out of her way to explain cultural differences and peppers the book with amusing takes on US life), is an interesting look at gender identity and gay culture in Iran.
But it's also a compelling story about class and the purpose of marriage. Whereas Levithan's boys are mostly middle-class Americans who are ready to fight for their right to love whom they want, Farizan's girls must also contend with their stations in life. Nasrin is pretty, rich, and from a good family, so she's trapped. Sahar, who has less money and no mother, has more freedom. More for teens, less for tweens, this novel introduces the idea that adults often get married for reasons that have nothing to do with love.
IF YOU COULD BE MINE
By Sara Farizan
Alqonquin, 248 pp., $16.95
Meredith Goldstein. can be reached at email@example.com.