Josh Mendel could be the average 12-year-old boy, having a crush on the hot new history teacher, like so many other boys have at one time or other. However, Josh was never really that average to begin with, what with being a bit of a whizz kid, who’s totally in love with numbers and baseball. After a birthday party gone horribly wrong, the fact that Evelyn Sherman, aforementioned hot history teacher, has been molesting Josh for months is brought to light and causes Josh to be mind-fucked for years to come, and confirms his status of odd one out. A state of mind which is even enhanced by the social awkwardness that any average teenager experiences anyway, regardless of whether they had a problematic childhood. Now at age 18 and about to graduate from high school, his not so innocent past is quickly catching up with him. Rachel (the girl from the birthday party) is hell bent on letting the past be in the past, while Josh – despite years of therapy – is still struggling with feelings of guilt, shame and worse about what happened between him and Eve on the one hand, and him and Rachel on the other hand.
Boy Toy is not a comfortable read. A novel about a sensitive topic like this shouldn’t be. On the contrary, Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy shows a level of maturity in treating its very controversial topic that a book with similar ambitions could only dream of. All props go to Barry Lyga here in not letting himself get carried away with needless melodramatic gushing or overly sentimental drivel. Of course, feelings are involved (how could they not?): feelings of lust, mistaken ideas about what love is, guilt, grief, etc. But it’s not a sobfest or a gratification of the emotions involved. Instead, we get an honest and (because of this earnestness) heart-wrenching first person account of the rollercoaster of emotions that Josh experienced from innocent yet consciously different 12-year-old boy to the 18-year-old brainiac/athlete who is still very much aware of his ‘different’ status. It’s his being different that made him attractive to both Evelyn Sherman in the first place, and now, also to his peer Rachel. The reason why schmaltzy sentiment never takes over is due to the very clever structure of the book (lots of elaborate flash backs and a meticulous present-time build up to the inevitable confrontation) and Lyga’s knack for readable, realistic yet witty prose and naturally flawed protagonists.
Just like in his previous books (also set at Brookdale, btw, with a few characters that also appear in other novels) Barry Lyga’s treatment of character is one of patience and respect. There’s definitely a richness and depth in the characterization that many other books just can’t provide. As in The Astonishing Adventures of Fan Boy and Goth Girl you can’t but help love and hate the characters at the same time. You want to hug them for their innocent beliefs and for being who they are one moment, and scream at them the next for taking the wrong decisions or just acting like an ass. Likewise, Lyga never merely gives you a black and white portrait of sexual predator and innocent victim, but shows us the whole mechanics that lead to Josh’s affair with Eve at age 12, and Josh’s social and emotional deadlock at age 18. Indeed, we get a complicated portrait of conflicted emotions throughout. Of course, what the reader realizes, but what Josh at age 12 can’t, is that his view on what was happening to him was fundamentally twisted by Eve’s manipulations. This is the realization that Josh has to come to himself, and which he hasn’t so far… It’s only after confronting Eve – the confrontation is bound to happen, as a reader you just know, but, yet it is oh so very carefully built up by Barry Lyga – that Josh can finally find his way out of her trap.
More than just a book about sexual transgressions, Boy Toy delivers on a number of levels. We get flawed and hence totally realistic teen characters, making this a dream of a coming of age novel. We get a carefully built up story structure, which intensifies the reader’s experience and will make the +400 page ride a thrilling one. The disturbing richness and depth in characterization and the readability of the prose make of Boy Toy a novel that some would probably never recommend to (younger) teens, but which is nevertheless a great eye-opener and a cautionary tale. It also made Barry Lyga into an author on the cat’s ‘Authors to read all books of’-list.