If you've actually seen this book out in the wild, can you let me know which cover it has? Netgalley featured the image with the boys actually holding hands, whereas the Amazon page has the cover with the cropped photo, so I assume that that's the one that the publisher went with... but I'd love to know if the image wraps around the book. I'd like that.
Anyway. This is a new edition of a book that came out back in 1993, and so while it was written as a contemporary—it's very specifically set in 1992 Dublin—it's got such a strong sense of time (and place) that now, twenty years later, it reads like historical fiction.
When Love Comes to Town is about seventeen-year-old Neil Byrne. He's the star of his rugby team, he's almost finished with high school, he's trying to figure out what he wants to do next—his father is pressuring him to go into engineering, but he's leaning towards liberal arts—and he's also finally coming to terms with something that he's been quietly aware of for years: he's gay. He's tired of hiding that part of himself from his family, his friends, the world—and to a degree, even from himself—but he's terrified about what coming out will mean. Will people treat him differently? Will his friends accept him? Will his family still love him? Will he just be trading one form of isolation for another: will he go from being in hiding to being shunned?
In a way, When Love Comes to Town is a classic issue novel: Neil's coming out experience is front-and-center. The book chronicles his entry into the gay community within the larger Dublin community, his first relationship, his battle with depression, his slow build towards making some sort of peace between his love for his family and his need to be himself, and ultimately, his journey towards self-acceptance. Although it certainly ticks every imaginable box on the Coming Out In The Early '90s checklist, its strong character development and its emotional honesty—seriously heart-breaking painful honesty—keep it from feeling like an afterschool special or a capital-I Issue novel.
Some readers—especially younger ones—will find certain aspects of Neil's story almost quaint. Which is a positive thing, as it highlights some of the social shifts that have occurred over the last twenty years. That said, there are plenty of readers of all ages who will find moments in Neil's story—moments of joy as well as moments of devastation—extremely familiar. Which speaks, again, to the honesty of Lennon's writing, but also says something along the lines of the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same, and also that there is still a whole lot of work to be done in terms of moving towards equality.
A few other thoughts:
As I said, it's set twenty years ago. So some of the language feels a bit dated, and there are a few words—for me specifically, the usage of 'tranny'—that may cause discomfort.
The thread about religion is really super: Neil isn't a big church-goer, but he prays for guidance on a regular basis, and while the story itself is told in the third person, those parts are in the first, which makes them feel that much more naked and personal. Also, BIG PROPS for the depiction of Father Donnelly, who, like my grandmother, is the personification of every positive attribute you could possibly attach to the word 'Christian'.
Some readers are bound to have difficulty with the book's ending—especially with Neil's decision about how to reconcile his sexual identity with his relationship with his parents—but for me, it rang true, both for the time and for Neil's character. Even if his parents choose to play ostrich for the rest of their lives, Neil himself has moved on into the world and his life, and he does it without burning bridges. There's a lot of hope there at the end, and a lot of possibility.
Book source: Review copy via Netgalley.