by Lio Min
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: July 26, 2022
Genres: Romance, Young Adult
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Lio Min’s Beating Heart Baby is an “achingly romantic” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) love letter to internet friendships, anime, and indie rock When artistic and sensitive Santi arrives at his new high school, everyone in the wildly talented marching band welcomes him with open arms. Everyone except for the prickly, proud musical prodigy Suwa, who doesn’t think Santi has what it takes to be in the band.
But Santi and Suwa share painful pasts, and when they open up to each other, a tentative friendship begins. And soon, that friendship turns into something more. . . .
Will their fresh start rip at the seams as Suwa seeks out a solo spotlight, and both boys come to terms with what it'll take, and what they'll have to let go, to realize their dreams?
When someone reached out and asked if I wanted to review this book, it only took one look at the cover for me to say yes. It’s gorgeous, a little bit messy, and absolutely perfect for this book, which completely ripped my heart out and made me so happy it did. It’s a love letter to music, to anime, to queer found families and to Los Angeles.
“Someone calls out, “What’s your name, Santiago Arboleda?”
I take a deep breath and answer:
“My name is Beating Heart Baby because I’ve got good taste in music, I’m a fake freshman, and, um, I’m single, if anyone wants to change that.”
Moving to Los Angeles is a new start for Santi, and hopefully one that means he won’t have to repeat any more years of high school. It’s bittersweet for him, too, as his online best friend Memo lives there, though he hasn’t talked to them since Santi messed up badly (story of his life) and Memo ghosted him. His guardian Aya grew up in LA and is still friends with the local high school band teacher, Cap. They arrange for him to get placed on the Sunshowers’ trumpet section, but while most everyone is welcoming, from the first day of band camp he can tell he’s not quite good enough. He’s fascinated with his biggest detractor, Suwa, who’s standoffish and downright rude. Plus, he keeps accidentally running into him – and sticking his foot in his mouth every time. But when Santi helps Suwa get through a panic attack before a show, things start warming up between the two. But Suwa’s a musical prodigy and after graduating at the end of the year, he hopes to go on tour. Does following their dreams mean they have to do it separately?
“All night, I repeat like a mantra in my head: Don’t forget don’t forget don’t forget. We all found each other. That was the truly impossible part. And now that I know what home feels like, I’m never letting go of the feeling.”
I cannot express in words how much I loved Santi and Suwa. Sure, they’re typical boneheaded teen guys who make terrible decisions occasionally, but they’re doing the best they can with what they have. Both come from fractured backgrounds. Santi never knew his dad and his Filipino mom died in a car crash, leaving him with Aya, a friend they’d been living with. Like him, Suwa’s mom has also passed, though in contrast to the warm and loving Aya, his dad is a pretty awful person. Suwa’s Korean and Japanese, something that his father’s Korean family hasn’t forgiven, nor can they forgive that he’s gay and trans. The Sunshowers, especially Cap, are truly a family for them, supportive in all the ways their families can’t be, and protection from the sometimes hostile world of high school.
The book is messy in all the ways teens in high school usually are. There’s first loves, lots of sneaking out at night, managing GPA and part-time jobs, not to mention basically learning how to be a human being. To me, there were two main themes to the story: dreams and forgiveness. In a way, in this story they’re inextricably linked. What would you do for your dreams, or the dreams of your friends? What if your dreams mean leaving those friends behind? Will they forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? What if you’re too scared to reach for your dreams? And of course, something dealing with high impact topics like dreams and forgiveness packs an emotional wallop. I cried a lot reading this book – angry tears, sad tears, happy tears – and thought endlessly about the characters when I wasn’t reading. There’s something so sweet and yearning about it that made me truly dread the inevitable bleak moment, but I also couldn’t put it down when that happened because I had to see how the author would make it right.
“That’s the only real rule I follow: Be good to those who open the door for you and those who knock on yours. And, oh I guess there are two, and forgive each other, and be open to forgiveness, when things get hard. Which, they will.”
The secondary characters are amazing and I loved Aya and Suwa’s sister Sayo. Santi and Suwa’s Sunshowers friend group are all wonderful, too, and oh so amazingly queer, but my favorite was Cap. He’s endlessly supportive, even to letting kids live with them when they get kicked out of their parents’ houses. He’s the loving parent that so many of the kids need and don’t have, and he’s what makes the Sunshowers exactly the family they need.
The writing is deeply descriptive with phrases that are just perfect. For instance, Santi describes seeing Suwa dressed up in costume as his brain being filled with popping bubble wrap, a phrase that was so perfectly descriptive that I gasped in delight. It’s also well-plotted and perfectly paced, though I’d say prety much anyone will see the bleak moment coming from a mile away. The book is also arranged creatively in a way that works perfectly: laid out like an old-school cassette tape, with various tracks (chapters) and an A-side, told from Santi’s point of view, and a B-side told from Suwa’s.
Look, I’m a white queer cis middle-aged women, which is almost as far as possible from the trans and gay teen characters of color as you can get, but I still felt like the book was speaking directly to me. I’m dating myself, but I was well out of high school by the time the “It Gets Better” project started. The message still resonates with me, though, as high school was rough for various reasons. Baby me sought out books with queer characters, completely oblivious as to why, continuously looking for one that didn’t end in tragedy (looking at you, Last Herald Mage). This book, with its message of found queer family and messy characters who don’t know what their lives will look like after high school? With seeing the characters a year later and, hey, they’re actually doing alright, chasing their dreams? I can’t express in words how much this would’ve meant to me then and how much it means to me now.
“What would it have been like to grow up in a more tender, accepting world? I spent so much of my life afraid of who I was. Even now, I’m still scared sometimes. But I was never as alone as I felt. No one’s ever as alone as they might feel.”
Overall, easily my favorite young adult book I’ve read this year, and definitely going on my top ten list. I’d recommend this for anyone looking for a pitch-perfect love song to found family, music and queerness.
Content notes: View Spoiler »homophobia, transphobia, deadnaming (name is blacked out), gender dysphoria (in the past but discussed on page), reference to past suicidal ideation, racism, panic attacks (on page), death of a parent (before book starts), grief, child abuse (physical and emotional, before book starts), religious abuse (before book starts, but described), near drowning (in the past, described), drug use (weed) and underage drinking « Hide Spoiler