CW: Mentions of discrimination and assault
I didn’t relate much to Bill Konigsberg’s The Music of What Happens. But its character development, and the heart-warming love story between two teenage boys who find a way to navigate trauma together moved me to tears and made me root for the protagonists until the very end.
Max and Jordan remotely know each other from school. But when Max accidentally witnesses Jordan’s mum breaking down on their very first day of trying to build a business and get their lives back on track, the two boys become inseparable on a beautiful, but challenging journey. Max is of Mexican origin and openly gay, which has been met with its fair share of discrimination and raised eyebrows, even from his own father. Because of that, he develops a coping mechanism, where he sees himself as a superhero whenever he feels emotionally frail. On top of everything, Max suspects he has been assaulted without even realising, which drives him into self-doubt and confusion.
Jordan is grieving his father and trying to protect his mother, a fragile woman with a gambling addiction, who hasn’t recovered from her husband’s death. When Jordan’s house is in danger of being taken away, he tries to re-start his late dad’s business, a food truck that used to be their main source of income. But his mum is unable to cope, so they hire Max to help along. Bonded over this sad, but urgent issue they have to overcome, Max and Jordan start having feelings for each other. The intense traumatic experiences both boys have gone through makes them become indispensable to each other while they slowly reach out for help to deal with their experiences.
The book has a lot to offer particularly if you’ve gone through similar situations as the protagonists or if you’re queer and find yourself in one of them. As a straight woman, I didn’t relate to Max or Jordan much, but that didn’t keep my heart from squeezing when they were in difficulty. A key way in which The Music of What Happens moved me was the gender stereotypes projected on Max in particular. When his dad would tell him that real men don’t do certain things or act certain ways, thus invalidating a very dangerous experience that had to be addressed, Max started imposing the same things on himself unawares. I felt so deeply for him when he thought he was weak just for realising he had been assaulted. Because similar things are imposed on women and girls from a young age, which often turn severely damaging later in life. Max being told to always be strong resonated with how I was told to always be graceful and sit up straight, or control my emotions in public.
All the issues the book approaches are dealt with sensitively, but seriously, acting as reassurance for anyone who may have gone through similar things. It deals with grief, addiction, toxic masculinity, race and sexuality, and it shows all the ways in which parents can contribute to the struggles of their children without even knowing it. For any queer young adult who can identify with either Jordan or Max, I’m sure this book will act as a beautiful place of comfort and representation, that shows them they are not alone, and adults don’t always have the answers.
The love story is gentle, supportive, and strong, often acting as a safety net when everything falls apart for the two protagonists. Both Jordan and Max are sensitive and, although not entirely alienated, lonely in many different ways. They both experience the absence of a helpful paternal figure, although Max’s dad is simply impossible to get to, while Jordan has lost his father altogether.
The Music of What Happens made me a silent, but thoroughly involved observer to a teenage experience that has lived it all, from all the ways generations clash, which I’ve felt in myself and my parents over the years, to all the reasons why teenage love isn’t as meaningless as we’re told growing up. Particularly for marginalised genders and sexualities, books like this speak volumes about how intense and profound a connection like Max and Jordan’s can be, as they’re tied through their mutual struggles as queer men, but also through family struggles and mental health traumas.
I started this piece by saying I didn’t relate much to The Music of What Happens. I mentioned I’m a straight woman, so Max and Jordan could only be relatable to a very small extent. But in a few years I will be the sister of a teenage boy. One day I might be the mother of a struggling teenager. I might witness my friends’ children discover their sexualities or find it difficult to fit in. I might be asked for advice or support by someone in a similar situation as any of the two protagonists. And for those hypothetical situations alone, for how The Music of What Happens shaped my behaviour in the most subtle ways and made me think twice about parenthood and being an adult figure to a teenager, it was worth every gut-wrenching, heart-warming second.
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