Ellen has been totally madly in love with her older brother's best friend since she was twelve years old. But she totally adores her brother, too, so she never takes sides in their frequent Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque fights.
Link and James are each others' best friends, but they are Ellen's only real friends. They include her in almost everything that they do.
Now that she's fourteen, and a freshman in high school, she sees them on their own turf, among their own peers... and she starts to question everything she's ever assumed about their relationship.
Ellen. I can imagine that some readers might experience this book as lacking in depth and/or emotional impact. That was not my experience—not remotely—but I can see how Ellen's quiet, thoughtful voice (which is a little bit formal, quite a bit detached, and a whole lot reserved), when compared with a gusher who narrates before thinking (like Mia Thermopolis or Georgia Nicholson or even Bella Swan), could come off as cold or overly stolid or even dull.
My take, though, is that her voice is A) more complicated than that, and B) entirely in keeping with her situation, upbringing, and personality. She's spent the last two years pretty much entirely in the company—her progress reports complain that she's "unwilling to form any firm social attachments" with her peers—of two very bright boys who're three years older than her. That, combined with her constant worry that her father will think she's stupid—because A) that's what he's like and B) she's the younger sister of a genius—results in her being a thinker-watcher-analyst instead of a throw-caution-to-the-winds-actor.
When she starts trying to understand Link and James' relationship, though, starts reading about gay history and gay rights and starts trying to understand "what it means to be gay", as she puts it, she starts to come out of her shell and into her own. Which is fascinating, because that still puts Link and James and their relationship front-and-center in her mind, heart, and life, rather than her own self. But in trying to understand them, she begins to understand the dynamics within her own family, and finally, to figure out who she is. She's so, so perceptive, and her matter-of-fact assumption that Link is always the more worthy of, well, EVERYTHING would be heartbreaking if she didn't love him so much, and if she wasn't so believably generous. She truly believes that she can only ever "hold Link's place" in James' heart, and as much as she is totally madly in love with him, she wants the two boys to find each other and be happy together.
The relationships and the characters. They're complicated and messy and confusing and real. All of them! The relationships between the parents, between the siblings, between Link and James and between James and Ellen. Ellen's presence as a buffer, as "insurance" that things will never be uncomfortable or weird between Link and James. James' need and desire for warmth, for family, for connection and affection. Ellen's relationship with her father, and her relationship with herself. It's such a short book, and it's so impressively layered. And Link! There's so much going on with him—so much rage and frustration and confusion—that I kind of wish there was a whole book about him.
Treatment of sexuality. It's frank and honest and not judgmental or preachy; it treats the characters as human beings with complex emotions and wants and needs; Ellen is curious without exoticizing or othering; James' attraction to both siblings—and more specifically, his romance with Ellen—is portrayed as genuine and something that naturally happens because they love each other, rather than something that has to be diminished via Armchair Psychology.
There are no easy answers. No one walks off into the sunset together. Ellen and James' romance is not a forever thing, and James and Link will likely never come together in that way. At the end, Ellen & Link's father is still kind of a clueless d-bag blowhard—he's not a malicious clueless d-bag blowhard, but still. Ellen & Link's parents' relationship is still on thin ice. There is no magical, heartwarming moment in which Link figures himself out, in which his relationship with James is suddenly whole again, in which he begins to allow other people to know him. By the end of the book, he's started to strive for what HE wants, rather than what his father wants, though. So even though there are no easy answers, there's no happy ending with a cherry on top, there's hope that ultimately, everyone is going to make it through, to be okay.
Book source: Borrowed from my library.