Synopsis: Ben Carver is back to normal. He’s getting all As in his classes at the Natick School. He was just elected captain of the baseball team. He’s even won a big scholarship for college, if he can keep up his grades. All that foolishness with Rafe Goldberg last semester is over now, and he just needs to be a Carver, work hard, and stay focused.
There’s Hannah, a gorgeous girl who attracts him and distracts him. There’s his mother, whose quiet unhappiness he’s noticing for the first time. School is harder, the pressure higher, the scholarship almost slipping away. And there’s Rafe, funny, kind, dating someone else… and maybe the real normal that Ben needs.
Konigsberg’s Openly Straight was one of my favorite books in high school, and the first I’d read with a main character from the LGBT+ community. That made picking up Honestly Ben a bit nostalgic, to say the least. After four years, I got to return to the world of Natick once again through a different perspective, and I couldn’t be happier with this sequel! Ben’s world is so much different than Rafe’s, and I’m glad that we got to hear from him. Where Rafe hails from a big city and a tight-knit accepting family, Ben comes from a small town and conservative family who doesn’t talk to each other often. It’s a stark contrast that adds so much more to both characters than what we see in the first book.
Although the term “love triangle” still bugs me (it’s more like a V than a triangle!), I was interested in the concept of one with a bi character at the center of it. At the end of Openly Straight, Ben and Rafe split up because Ben is mad that Rafe lied to him about being out as gay at his previous school–Ben had thought they were both exploring. So now they’re back for the spring semester of their junior year, and Ben avoids Rafe the best he can. In doing that, he meets Hannah Stroud at the library. They hit it off with a few jokes and Ben is immediately interested in getting to know her better.
The problem is that he has a scholarship on the line, a class he’s in danger of failing, and a baseball team that he was elected captain of. He can’t risk getting distracted by anything and letting it all slip through his fingers. Blaming Rafe as the reason for his C+ in calculus the previous semester, Ben realizes he needs to balance his time. But of course that doesn’t work out so well, or we wouldn’t have a book.
The characters that we follow are very diverse, especially regarding situations and personality. It’s mentioned that the students at Natick are mostly white, so, unfortunately, there’s that. But Rafe is gay, Ben doesn’t really label, and Toby comes out as gender fluid. Plus the type of home and family Ben comes from is a massive contrast to Rafe’s, which we see in the first book. One thing that some might not particularly like is that Ben doesn’t want to use the term “bisexual” to define him. However, this isn’t one of those books that refuses to say the word. Ben discusses his identity with a lot of other characters and decides that it’s just not the word for him, and there are people like that, and their decision is completely valid.
As I mentioned above, Ben has a whole lot going on in this book, and it all plays a part in him growing so much throughout the book. After all, a lot of this book is about labels and Ben finding his. When he is elected baseball team captain, he has to learn how to speak up and be a leader. Initially, Ben’s one of those people that’s fine not always getting a word in, but this teaches him to help the younger players who are totally lost at times and to call out the drama that older players create. Running himself ragged to meet his father’s expectations also helps him realize that he needs to start living life for himself however difficult it is to ignore the opinions of those he grew up with. It’s just amazing to see how much he learns in this book, and I love it!
Final thought: Like its precursor, this is a highly underrated book. If you’re into books with LGBT+ representation and happy endings, I’d say give this one a try. You won’t regret it!