‘The Perfect Family’ by Kathryn Shay

The Davidsons are a perfect family—though not in a Stepford  Wives way. Relatively healthy, communicative, genuinely wanting what’s best for each other, the Davidsons face a dramatic paradigm shift when the youngest son Jamie, a high school junior, comes out.

What’s stunning about Kathryn Shay’s latest novel The Perfect Family (Bold Strokes Books) is the equal weight given to each family member’s struggle—for Shay coming out isn’t just an individual struggle, but a challenge the entire family must face.

Jamie figures: “Straight people don’t have to explain themselves, why should I?”

His father Mike is no zealot, but religious identity, living through the church’s community, always comforted and defined him. Jamie’s mother Maggie grew up in a family estranged largely because of the church. If their church can’t accept Jamie, could another? Would that tear her and her husband apart? And Brian’s always been there for his little brother, but what will everybody at school think this means about him? Will the brother he loves burn in hell if he just accepts this?

The dedication, “For my son Ben, I love you,” hints at the closeness of the subject to Shay, who truthfully captures every family member’s intimate thoughts and perspectives. Shay’s experience as a high school teacher reflects in her understanding of the teenage mind, and her role as a mother and wife couldn’t be clearer: you get to know the family so much you love each of them, because the Davidsons love each other—a tangible, realistic love, often confused, always genuine. And Shay’s sense of story, honed over a career of 30+ romance novels, focuses life’s complexities and confusions into a page-turning narrative.

While a huge percentage of contemporary YA lit—from the insanely popular Twilight series to the acclaimed works of John Green and David Levithan, to smaller-known gems like Siobhan Vivian’s Not That Kind of Girl—tell their stories honing in on frequently young, often sassy or dramatically heightened first-person teenage narrators, Shay’s third-person narrator is a fresh departure: a voice reflecting experience, awareness, and the knowledge surviving life’s hardships brings—a welcome voice needed in YA lit, in perfect harmony with the subject, written with a mother’s love and understanding.

When I was coming out, my mom and I passed books and articles back and forth to communicate thoughts we couldn’t put to words. Similarly, Shay’s book is ideal for parents, siblings, and GLBT teens to share their emotions—especially those within unflinching religions.

Here’s a novel that handles gay and religious themes, yet isn’t for or against religion. So many novels with gay themes treat religion bitterly, reeling from the pains it inflicted.

In Shay’s novel being gay doesn’t mean having to leave religion behind (for more in this vein, read Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, which systematically and scholarly negates pretty much every argument the Catholic Church has against homosexuality).

The Perfect Family shows how far we haven’t come as a society as well as the growth that results in many that challenges touch – without forgetting how some small minds persevere against progress.

Shay’s story doesn’t downplay how some families still alienate and abandon their GLBT members, while others build bonds that aren’t broken when strained, how this family at odds sticks with each other while other families—like Jamie’s boyfriend Luke’s—fight and separate.

This is the kind of book that reminds you of your own family’s struggles and makes you want to immediately phone your mom, dad, brother, or son, and say, “Hey, I love you.”
By Kathryn Shay
Bold Strokes Books
Paperback, 9781602821811, 313p