Earlier this year, I decided to clear out my TBR list on Goodreads a little bit—the logic being, I suppose, that what is quarantine for, if not all the sapphic books you never got around to reading? As with any such endeavor, the results were a mixed bag—the good, the excellent, and the “bizarre, but it was about witches”—though there was one novel in particular I had a hard time parsing my feelings about: Her Name in the Sky, author Kelly Quindlen’s debut novel, which follows a queer teen named Hannah and her friends through their senior year of high school. On the one hand, I was really impressed with Quindlen’s writing: her characters felt so three-dimensional, and their relationships to each other were written so authentically, it was like taking a nostalgic trip back to my own high school days. But on the other hand, this is a book about coming out—a painful, dramatic coming out that puts our main character through so much hell, it was really difficult, at times, to read about. And while I obviously don’t think queer novels centered on coming out are a bad thing—in a lot of ways, they’re necessary, especially to young queer kids—I’ve grown fatigued in recent years of reading stories about the pain that comes with discovering your queerness.
But the things I’d loved about Her Name in the Sky had left an impression on me. And so when I saw Meryl Wilsner (author of Something to Talk About, another excellent sapphic romance) raving about Quindlen’s new book Late to the Party, I was more than willing to give it a chance. Turns out, second chances are an apt theme for this entire review: they’re an important aspect of the novel, but also, giving Quindlen a second chance was easily one of the better decisions I’ve made all year.
Late to the Party accentuates Quindlen’s strengths as a writer by centering the novel on friendship. There’s some really excellent queer romance in this novel, but it comes in second to the platonic relationships, particularly those among Codi, our introverted, artistic main character, and her two best friends since forever, Maritza and JaKory. Right off the bat, we learn that this kind of queer narrative is completely different from Her Name in the Sky: where Hannah’s friend group was mostly straight, Codi is a lesbian, Maritza bisexual, and JaKory gay. In a very sweet and realistic way, we see the three of them come out to each other, at the same time, without any fuss or drama or fanfare. It’s really amazing and still refreshing that this isn’t a story about being queer: it’s about characters who are messy and complicated and yes, also just so happen to be queer.
The central conflict of the novel comes from the fact that the three friends—who are all a bit introverted—feel they’re missing out on “typical” teenage experiences. None of them has ever been to a party or out on a date, and their lack of experience is beginning to chafe at them. Codi, too, is growing discontented with their friendship: she fears that because Maritza and JaKory have known her forever, they have an outdated idea of her in their heads and don’t see the real, dynamic Codi who’s capable of more. In part as an effort to let this real, dynamic Codi shine, Codi attends a party being thrown by the cool kids—and in so doing meets Ricky, a popular kid whom she accidentally discovers kissing another boy.
The bond that forms between Codi and Ricky is one of the novel’s strongest: on the surface, they don’t have much in common, but this chance encounter with the secret of Ricky’s queerness creates an opening for something deep and true. Ricky’s not totally comfortable with his sexuality, but Codi makes it clear that not only is his secret safe, but she can empathize with what he’s going through, in a way the rest of his friends (although it’s made clear that they would be supportive) really can’t. Ricky, in return, takes Codi under his wing: he introduces her to his friends and to all the things she’s felt she was missing out on. This includes parties, alcohol, nighttime romps on the town, and, most significantly for Codi, a beautiful girl named Lydia with whom she instantly connects. These experiences and these characters are so alive they seem to jump right off the page, and, best of all, Codi isn’t punished for drinking and going to parties. Part of me was braced for some kind of teen cliché peer-pressure situation with her newfound friend group, but it never came. Ricky’s friends are the “cool kids”, but they also are genuinely nice, supportive of Codi’s talent as an artist, and don’t make a big deal of it when she doesn’t want to drink or smoke. Which was wildly, awesomely refreshing.
Of course, getting a second chance at being what Codi calls a real teenager means potential complications with her old friend group—which Quindlen handles well, in a way that makes it clear everyone has things to apologize for but nobody’s a bad person. They’re just teenagers—messy, complicated, and incidentally, queer. I adored this book with every part of me (especially the part of me that’s still a queer, anxious, introverted teen) and can’t wait to see what Quindlen does next.