The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart tries way, way too hard. But then again, what better encapsulates the spirit of Oscar Wilde and teenagerdom than this messy, passionate exploration of the power of literature?

Words have always been more than enough for Ken Z, but when he meets Ran at the mall food court, everything changes. Beautiful, mysterious Ran opens the door to a number of firsts for Ken: first kiss, first love. But as quickly as he enters Ken’s life, Ran disappears, and Ken Z is left wondering: Why love at all, if this is where it leads?

Letting it end there would be tragic. So, with the help of his best friends, the comfort of his haikus and lists, and even strange, surreal appearances by his hero, Oscar Wilde, Ken will find that love is worth more than the price of heartbreak. 

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In order to get to a story about love being “worth the price of heartbreak,” The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart is going to ask you to make a long journey. “Multi-format” doesn’t begin to cover it; there are haikus and lists and message transcripts and prose sections and strange italicized tangents and entire scenes written as just dialogue. R. Zamora Linmark will pull you down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, wringing every drop of thematic resonance he can out of penguins and Cole Porter and Catcher in the Rye references. By the time Oscar Wilde himself inexplicably shows up in this contemporary, shifting the whole thing into a new postmodern gear, the tangled mess is far removed from what I think of as the “novel.”

But I really can’t fault it too much, because this is YA, after all, and this book is such a teenager.

I don’t mean the characters or voice seem like teenagers. I mean the book itself feels like a teenager. It’s a hot mess that’s trying to do way too much. It frantically flits from topic to topic, searching for a way to put overwhelming feelings into words.

Because those feelings are so big, so raw and earnest (Earnest?) that a simple story of boy-meets-boy seems insufficient. The book is bursting with desperation to communicate the joy and terror of Ken’s existence. The messiness and lack of focus only make the emotion feel more real.

Yes, I picked this one up mostly because of the Earnest reference. Apart from being one of my all-time favorite plays, The Importance of Being Earnest will always have a special place in my heart as the first play I got to do in high school.

For all the honesty of emotion, little else about The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart is at all realist.

Ken and his friends are an English teacher’s wildest (Wilde-est?) dream, completely oblivious to anything written in the last sixty years. They spend their days debating classics of the Western canon from a fictional island nation with no real literary culture of its own. Their wordplay and “bunburying” feel almost hypothetical, disconnected from context or reality. By the time Oscar himself shows up, I’m not all that surprised; this isn’t a book that takes place in anything like the real world.

I’m not convinced the book hits the mark every time. A short chapter on a trans girl friend of Ken’s, for instance, made me uncomfortable with its fixation on the way Estelle’s gender identity complicates her attractiveness. (Boys and girls alike lose their minds over Estelle, “until the asteroid of reality hits them–he is actually a she sharing a locker room with them.” Quote from ARC.) That chapter, though, is followed by a powerful, admiring meditation on the name change of Ken’s other close friend, which I found captivating and beautiful. (“Each blood-drawn day as cruel and unbearable as the next. All because Jack is Jill. And believed and fought to stay Jill.”) The book’s treatment of queer identities, from Ken’s to his friends’ to Oscar Wilde’s, is often messy and unsettling, but what could be more on-brand for this odd little book? I’ll link to some OwnVoices reviews when I find some that go into detail on the Queer rep.

I received an eARC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review. All opinions my own.

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