When I stumbled onto an excerpt of this book in January, I could not wait for it. I like politics, gay love stories and interracial love stories and this had all three with a twist making it all more extreme; the son of the Republican nominee for President of the United States and the son of the Democratic nominee are the love birds.
I’ve heard the story is vastly similar to Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (a critically acclaimed book I ashamedly have yet to read.) In this alternate universe, year unknown but a time when Captain Marvel toys are on the shelves, it’s a time some have seen a few of and many have endured; the primaries for the next commander-in-chief, and the incumbent must’ve served his (or her; the Obamas have different names) eight years, and it’s Tomas Rosario on the left and Janice Arnault on the right. Oh, but there’s something else. An independent named Jackson McMann is also running and seems more excited of the idea of stoking enough enthusiasm to win the name of commander-in-chief than actually taking charge of the country, and soon he has enough support that he gets a spot at the podiums, but more on that. Both the other nominees have sons, Andre (Rosario) and Dean (Arnault).
During the first debate, an emergency forces Andre (actually, Dre) and Dean into the same room while it’s sorted out, and they try to just avoid polite conversation, but maybe the uncertainty of if your parents are alive will force you to loosen up. Dre and Dean talk about how different (and delicately the same) their lives have been since both their parents ended up winning the nominations, and the topic of sexuality comes up. Dre’s gay and the world already knows it, and Dean ends up saying he’s still figuring himself out, eventually saying that he thinks he identifies as demisexual (attracted to someone you have real love or respect for, gender not really relevant, although most of his attractions have coincidentally (or not) been men), and the two of them begin a secret forbidden life. Not even love, probably, but just, understood friends.
There are some out in the world who may have issues with this book, one being the fact we’re asked to sympathize with the son of a presidential candidate who has some views he doesn’t entirely believe in but is hoping she wins nonetheless, even though she has a blithe anti-gay, anti-trans agenda. But if you ask me, it’s not really a story asking us to support a blind Republican but support a respectful son, who wants the best result possible for his own mother. I also enjoyed the twist on a female nominee on the Republican side. Some others have criticized Shaun David Hutchinson’s portrayal of Dre and his father as too Americanized for a Mexican family. Reasonable criticism. But I also feel Dre was put into a political world for this story that required constant trips, lots of money, perfectionism, and private jets, and having to keep to himself to avoid the press, so the political world’s probably prevented him from thinking about it very much.
I also feel Hutchinson did a good job of reminding us of the pressure Dre was having being the father of potentially the first ever Latino president of the U.S. Dre and Dean don’t talk much about their differences in skin colour and culture, and that was alright for me. Those are important to talk about, no question, but there are other things that can create conflict and heartbreak in this sort of story, and I never got the impression the book was trying to distract from important humanitarian issues. What this book really focuses on is how Dre and Dean are breaths of fresh air to each other but nothing else at first, feeling like only they truly understand each other at a time where no day is normal.
Then it turns into the story of their hidden relationship and how they make each other happy but can that overcome the hundred obstacles in their way? Once we get settled in, I had to basically pull my head away from the book’s magnetism to force myself to stop reading.
I will admit the book starts off not too strong. We’re dropped immediately into the action, of the campaign trail hot and underway and the two nominee sons ending up trapped alone in a room together. I liked the groundbreaking Simon vs. The HomoSapiens Agenda but something I definitely would’ve changed (and thankfully the movie does this) is it doesn’t give us the introduction of Simon finding out about another secretly gay kid at his school and first trying to get to know him. Instead it dove right into the blackmail storyline. This is the same sitch. Plus the first 50 pages are kind of meh. The book shifts between character points very fast and I was worried about that keeping up; I’m not a fan of continuous 3-page chapters. Given to the Sea did that and it really suffered as a result. Plus, even though Dre has been out for a while and probably has had lots of pieces written about him, he just says the word “boyfriend” in a conversation casually to who is supposed to be his sworn enemy.
It’s after that introduction when, as I said, things tilt back in a favourable way. I had a mixed reaction toward Jackson McMann being an independent that was surging (felt kind of like a cop-out), but all things considered, just like Trump who this character is obviously based on, McMann has a lot of people in his big pocket. He has connections in business and in politics. The way the book puts it is a lot of high-up people’s paychecks depended on him. Plus he was able to get real enthusiasm for rednecks who cared more about a commander-in-chief they’d have a beer with and have crack jokes to liven up the party. If Trump decided to run very late into the party or lost the Republican nomination in 2016, I could see him performing something like this. And as the book went on, I liked the choice of him as an independent more because if McMann were the father of Dean, there’d just be no sympathizing with Dean whatsoever if he still fully committed to his parent running for president. There’d just be no excuse.
And that’s not to say Janice Arnault is a goddess. We can tell she has values that thrive on toxic masculinity and American “normalcy” that’s horrified many who are out of their norm for years. By the end she’s not magically changed and she’s still someone I wouldn’t vote for, but we don’t see her as someone completely intolerant either. (Everyone has stories of their own individual lives, and some have been really hurt by the actions of even non-radical Republicans. We’re in a different age than we used to on the basis of the left and right wing, so whether Janice Arnault should be seen as an exemplary or despicable right-wing politician should be up to the reader to decide.)
The State of Us is not the sort of phenomenal book like The Hate U Give that can start a revolution, and in this day, a lot of real-life stories involving these sorts of characters could probably be more violent and corrupt than this, but sometimes you just need a nice petite enjoyable page-turner to get you through crummy times, and The State of Us is one of the most enjoyable books of this crummy year. It has the sort of climax and conclusion where you sit back and imagine that really happening – and you can’t help but grin.
If you like this, I’d try: I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver, One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva, Simon vs. The Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, and the Heartstopper comics by Alice Oseman