Every so often I’ll pick up a book that truly captures my heart and sparks my imagination, and this remarkable debut novel by Eric Gober is one of them. Masterfully written, it follows Neil Ospwinkle as he negotiates an unconventional upbringing, endures the heartache of his teenage years, and sets out as a young adult to pursue his ambition to become a make-up artist. I quickly fell in love not only with the distinctive style, but with the quirky characters and the colorful craziness of Las Vegas where the story is set.

For a boy like Neil, sensitive and extremely artistic, his is a rough childhood. Raised on a run-down trailer park on the outskirts of the city by a flighty mother and a string of unsuitable stepfathers, he has never met his real dad. It becomes apparent early on that Neil isn’t like other boys his age. He has no desire to kiss a girl, and infinitely prefers playing with his Aunt Louise’s make-up to tinkering with car engines. At school, however, he knows he must keep these differences buried deep inside, or else end up the victim of ridicule and bullying.

In love, it seems Neil is fated to be as unlucky as his mother. Throughout his adolescence, he gives his heart away time and time again, only to have it broken. Then, while working a casual job as a waiter as he searches for his big break, he meets Zach, a geeky college student with an easy-going nature and big dreams of his own. Finally, Neil dares to hope he has found his soul mate. But even as he is dazzled by the opportunities for aspiring make-up artists beckoning him from Los Angeles, Zach longs for the relative peace and tolerance of his native Toronto. Neil must decide what is most important to him, or risk letting happiness slip through his fingers.

This is an unforgettable coming of age novel that paints a vivid and often bleak picture of the challenges faced by a young gay man growing up in the ‘80s and 90s. Though Gober touches upon a whole range of issues, from school bullying and domestic abuse, to marriage inequality and AIDS, he does so in a way that is always relevant and never once feels contrived. The strength and determination Neil shows throughout is a true inspiration, and I know his story will stay with me for a long time.

For anyone in search of a mature young adult read written with depth and unflinching honesty, and which will take you on an emotional journey of love, loss and self-discovery, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Written for Rainbow Book Reviews and first published on Blogcritics