Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Book Review: "We Are Lost and Found" by Helene Dunbar

Utterly gorgeous and emotionally evocative, Helene Dunbar's We Are Lost and Found feels like pages from a person's diary. It so effectively and beautifully captures the early 1980s in New York City, what it was like to be a teenager struggling with your sexuality and your desire to be loved and be seen, and the uncertainties and fears of the early days of AIDS.

Michael, James, and Becky are best friends. While Michael and Becky are still in high school, James is two years older, and is a performance artist. James is always the center of attention—his ethereal good looks and his magnetic self-confidence tend to pull everyone toward him.

Michael is envious of James knowing who he is. Ever since Michael's father threw his older brother Connor out of the house after he came out, Michael wants to do everything he can to stay under the radar, yet at the same time, he's just dying to tell his parents the truth. In fact, he wants to tell everyone the truth but at the same time, he's not quite ready to make that leap.

The one place Michael feels at home is at The Echo, a gay dance club. There he can lose himself in the music, flirt without consequence, and not have to acknowledge all of the anxieties he carries with him on a daily basis. He doesn't have to be stuck between his parents and his brother, he doesn't have to lie to his parents about where he's going, he just enjoys the few hours he has, simply to be.

When Michael meets Gabriel, he finally feels seen for the first time, by someone who is interested in him, not in using him to get to James. Michael is lost in the flush of first love, despite the fact that he can't really spend time with Gabriel except at The Echo once a week, despite the fact he can't tell his parents why he's happy. And the more his feelings and his desire for Gabriel intensify, the more his fears about AIDS start to consume him. How does anyone know who's safe? Is it safer never to be with anyone than to put yourself at risk, even if it is all you want?

We Are Lost and Found really struck a chord for me. While I was a little bit younger than these characters in the early 1980s, Dunbar really captured that period of time so perfectly. Coming of age and struggling with my sexuality in the midst of anxieties about AIDS was immensely difficult. The fears of how your parents would react to your telling the truth about your sexuality coupled with wanting to be loved (or even just liked) and the general upheaval of being a teenager was difficult enough, let alone wondering if being with a person could lead to a death sentence.

Dunbar is a fantastic writer. I fell in love with these characters and was really rooting for them, and hoped the book didn't take a severely maudlin turn. The book is told in vignettes more than chapters, and Dunbar doesn't use quotation marks to denote dialogue (at least in the advance version I read), but neither of those things bothered me in the slightest. I honestly could have done with more of the book because I was sad when it ended—it probably didn't help that I read the entire thing in one day.

Maybe some of those who lived through those days will remember things differently, but as someone who was close in age to the characters at the time the book took place, We Are Lost and Found was pitch-perfect. A beautiful book so well-told, one that I won't soon forget.

NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS Fire provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

This book will be published September 3, 2019.

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