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The Best Gay Novel of 2019 Depicts Gay Sex With a Masterful Touch

Lie with me

Philippe Besson's novel, Lie With Me, reminds readers just how complicated falling in love (and bed) for the first time can be. 

One of the best novels you'll read this year was actually published in France in 2017. Translated by the actress and author Molly Ringwald, Lie With Me by Philippe Besson brilliantly reminds readers of the joys and agonies of love.

There's the fervor -- feelings so intense they burn into every waking thought -- but also the questions, the bewilderment. It's your first time; it's exciting, certainly, but is this how it's supposed to feel? With time and practice, you learn what to expect in a relationship, but when you're in high school, as are the two boys engaged in the secret romance that is the heart of Lie With Me, you're still very much figuring it all out.

In France, the book was a #1 bestseller, which surprised Philippe Besson, he admits. Lie With Me is not the typical story you expect to see selling the 120,000+ copies that it's gone on to do. "But readers have been touched, I believe, by the dazzle of first love and by the social impossibility of this love," Besson says. This love, existing behind the closed doors of a small French town, is not for public consumption.

We drive at high speed along back roads, through woods, vineyards, and oat fields. The bike smells like gasoline and makes a lot of noise, and sometimes I'm frightened when the wheels slip on the gravel on the dirt road, but the only thing that matters is that I'm holding on to him, that I'm holding on to him outside.

To be out in public, holding on to one another, is a rare privilege they're not often afforded. Philippe, the narrator, revels in it, eventually going on to live as an openly gay adult. Thomas, the other boy, is not so lucky. He retreats into himself. Besson points to this as another reason readers have connected so strongly with the work. They were "perhaps moved by the destiny of Thomas, who imposes secrecy on himself, a form of denial and eventually suffering that consumes and kills."

But before that darkness, there is sex. Lots and lots of sex.

It's unfair, but I often feel a tiny part of myself bracing and hesitant when it seems like two queer characters might be headings towards any sort of sexual intimacy. Books have provided countless examples of sex scenes done right -- Sean Andrew Greer's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Less, is one recent, popular example.

I'd argue that it is the film depictions of queer sex that monopolize and set the tone of the conversation. TV and film are dominant in our culture. In direct contrast to the casual nature by which sex between opposite-sex couples is depicted on mainstream screens, queer sex is deemed less appropriate to show, something to be ashamed of and kept hidden. This has affected how we read.

We've been programmed to read such interactions with a more careful eye, and the successes and failures of these scenes carry a great amount more expectation and weight than they ordinarily would.

Much has been written about how the camera pans away from the two lovers in the film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, focusing instead on the Italian night sky. The comparisonsto Call Me By Your Name are unavoidable; the film adaptation came out only a couple of years ago and a quote from its author, Andre Aciman, tops the cover of Lie With Me.

It's the Call Me By Your Name film adaptation that is most entrenched in the public's mind. Compared to that, and also taken separately, the sex scenes in Lie With Me are particularly striking -- and satisfying. As the characters grow more comfortable in their sexual relationship, so too does Besson in sharing more of it with the reader.

It's difficult to appropriately communicate what I want to see on the page when it comes to sex. The line between "porn" and "not porn" is not a line but a large swath of gray that shrinks and expands depending on the person. I'm not seeking out porn, but I am seeking out something more than we've been historically given. I want more, and I don't want young queer kids to grow up, as I did, stigmatizing sex.

Besson seems to agree.

"There was no reason to hide this reality, the communion of bodies, the touch of skin." He says. "To soften this reality would have been to apologize, or to be ashamed. I didn't have to apologize. I had no reason to be ashamed."

There is no room for prudishness in telling your story, Besson firmly declares. This lack of prudishness, lack of concealment around the sexual yearnings of its teenager male leads, is one one of the reasons why Molly Ringwald's name on the cover is so intriguing.

And yet, something feels oddly delicious about Ringwald taking on this adaptation about two high schoolers exploring their sexuality in the mid-80s. Molly Ringwald became Molly Ringwald during the same time, playing characters who were also trying to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be.

She's come out in recent years about her discomfort in looking back at beloved films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles she was a part of, citing themes of sexual violence and racial stereotypes that are impossible to treat as lightly today. With Lie With Me, Molly Ringwald offers an additional coming of age story, one more suited to our current era.

Jeffrey Masters is a senior editor for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmasters1

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