When You Get the Chance by Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson is unapologetically queer, but aside from that doesn’t have much to offer.
What’s it about?
Cousins Mark and Talia haven’t seen each other in years. They used to spend every summer together at their grandparents’ cottage, but haven’t done so since their parents fell out. When their grandfather unexpectedly dies and their grandmother suffers a health setback, their parents leave them alone at the cottage—along with Mark’s sister Paige—to clean it up and potentially get it ready to sell. Unbeknownst to the adults, though, Mark and Talia have plans in the big city: Talia wants to reconnect with her ex, and Mark just wants to cut loose at Pride.
What’d I think?
I read tons of LGBTQ+ books. I rarely read books that aren’t at least a little bit queer. I love stories about loving families and other platonic relationships. When You Get the Chance looked like it was going to be a home run for me. I mean, just look at the cover. It’s so joyfully gay! And since a lot of LGBTQ+ fiction is, for obvious reasons, focused on romance, I was extra excited about this one. The concept was appealing enough that I read it without taking even a preliminary look at any reviews. I probably shouldn’t have done that, because if I had I either would have skipped it or I would have prepared myself for a solidly three-star read.
There main problem with When You Get the Chance is that it’s scattered. There’s too much going on. Too many characters, too many plotlines, too many ideas, etc. There are two main plotlines that feel entirely disconnected from each other.
The first is the family drama with Talia’s dad and Mark’s mother. They were close as children and then had a falling out, possibly involving a childhood friend neither has ever mentioned to their own kids, and now they’re thrown back together because of their dad’s death. At the start of the novel, the two families head back to the summer cottage after the funeral to clean it out. Talia’s dad wants to sell it, but Mark’s mom wants to hold onto it. They’re eternally at each other’s throats, and Paige wants to dig deep and find out what is going on. Mark and Talia are less concerned, assuming that it’s just standard grown-up growing apart. Talia wants to be responsible and get the cottage cleaned up. Mark wants to bum around, get drunk, and flirt with the bad boy next door. This set up could have sustained a whole novel, but instead most of it gets quickly wrapped up for a road trip. After only a few short chapters, Mark’s guy ends up being a homophobe who was just hanging around to steal old tools, so Mark decides to totally bail and drive to Pride. Talia, who wants to reconnect with her ex, ditches the cleaning and they all go together.
Remember the apparently large plotline with their parents’ puzzling animosity? Mark and Talia don’t. They forget it entirely, only to remember it and have it quickly and anticlimactically wrapped up a few pages from the end when they get back from the city. Want to know what else they forget? Their dead grandfather. The dead grandfather is a really weird bit of this book. The authors go out of their way to tell us that he was in incredibly good health and that his death was a shock that no one saw coming… and yet no one really grieves. The parents are a little sad, but our main protagonists apparently couldn’t care less. If Ryan and Stevenson didn’t want to engage even superficially with grief, they should’ve found a different way to bring the families together. Even changing it so that Grandpa had been ailing for long enough that everyone had already made peace with his passing would’ve made Mark and Talia’s apathy more palatable. Maybe Ryan and Stevenson could have leaned into the idea that his death was such a shock that no one has processed it yet. As is, it’s just weird and makes everyone seem heartless.
Then in the middle of the book there’s the the second plotline, the one taking place at Pride that… does literally nothing. Sure, Talia sees her ex Erin and they figure out what’s going on between them, and Mark meets a nice guy. But that’s not anything that couldn’t have happened back at the cottage.
Clearly including a lot of diversity was a priority for Ryan and Stevenson, and that’s an admirable goal, and one that is easier to accomplish at a big-city Pride than in the country, but at a certain point it felt like they were just adding more characters so that they could cross more experiences off the list without engaging deeply with them. Mark’s car breaks down and they accept a lift from an older butch/femme lesbian couple, who seem to exist primarily to reflect that queer terminology has evolved since their day. Then they disappear entirely from the narrative, but not before introducing Mark and Talia to their friends, a gay male couple of whom one is a drag queen. These guys have maybe one scene before disappearing. Then Talia meets up with Erin and meets all their friends, of whom there are many and who are set up like they’re going to become major players… before never appearing again. Ditto with Mark. He meets a new love interest, who then introduces his friends, of whom there are many but who have maybe two scenes in the whole book. Each new batch of characters is described in very specific detail, down to the cut and color of the pants they’re wearing, but those loving descriptions take up at least fifty percent of their total pagetime.
A few of them ostensibly serve a purpose; the guy who has a douchey boyfriend inspires Mark to stop being an asshole and dump the guy he’s been stringing along, and Mark’s new love interest has a throwaway line about not drinking that inspires Mark to stop binge drinking. It’s very weird, especially since Mark’s journey from total dick to nice guy is done so poorly. Those are literally the only two moments of growth. When he leaves for Pride he’s trash, but by the time he gets back a few days later he’s great. It’s better to have a static character, in my opinion, than to shortchange the growth this much.
It’s like When You Get the Chance is so focused on trying to represent everyone that it fails to create any fully-fledged characters. That’s frustrating because if it had pared the cast down to the essential characters, it could have been excellent, and still more diverse than the norm. Mark is a white cis gay man, and is blinded by his privilege. Meanwhile, Talia is still trying to figure out where she fits in because she’d previously identified herself as a lesbian, but is unsure if she should still claim that when she realizes that she is still attracted to Erin—who had likewise first identified as lesbian before coming out as nonbinary and pansexual—regardless of their gender. The way that Talia and Mark clash over their understandings of gender and privilege is very interesting, and Talia and Erin’s conflicting views on monogamy vs. polygamy are a part of queer relationships not often explored. But these potentially great conflicts are buried under the rest of it. Even Paige, arguably the third main character, is basically pointless. All she does aside from wondering about their parents’ fight is go around talking openly about Mark’s sexuality without understanding why that’s not necessarily okay.
Then, when everyone gets back to the cottage, it all gets wrapped up too easily. Mark is cured of being awful, the parents have made up and their secrets are spilled without any more fanfare. It’s too easy, and it’s all pretty anticlimactic. You can’t build a mystery the whole book and then have that be the answer.
Tom Ryan and Robin Stevenson clearly had good intentions with When You Get the Chance. They missed the mark by trying to do too much, though. If they’d pared this down to just a few characters and really focused on their growth instead of trying to represent everyone they’d have done better because at a certain point even the best-intentioned diversity feels like an attempt to check everyone off a list if nothing is ever done with any of them (did we get a fat Black lesbian? Okay, what about an older person who is uncomfortable with the word ‘queer?’ Good. How about some queer indigenous drummers? Cool, but don’t forget…) Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d rather have a few identities done well than all of them done with the bare minimum. There’s a nonbinary pansexual polyamorist in the main cast! Why not focus more attention on them as a character instead of describing the exact lipstick shade their friends were wearing? One of the main characters just identifies as “queer” because she hasn’t figured out which label, if any, fits her best. I would love more about that journey, because one of the hardest things about identifying that way is that I’m inundated with queer characters who know exactly who they are and always have done, which is great but occasionally it would be nice to know that there are people who don’t really have it figured out.
Anyway, this book is fine, but there are a lot of LGBTQ+ stories out there nowadays, and this is not one of the better ones.
Looking for another book that is more about queer community than queer romance? How it All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi is about a young gay Muslim who runs away from home and finds a community of other queer people who become a second family to him.
Casey McQuiston’s novel One Last Stop is about a bisexual woman who moves to the big city, falls in love, but also falls in with a diverse queer group who adopt her into their family. I love the queer community in this novel so much. Every member of the group is well-developed and someone that I’d love to have as a friend.
Want a great novel about a nonbinary character? Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best is amazing.
Do you wish that Mark’s growth from horrible person to good guy were done better? The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee is about a bisexual rake who goes on an adventure and comes out the other side having slowly gotten his life together.
Wish that there had actually been a road trip in this book? Chris Colfer’s Stranger than Fanfiction is a roadtrip story with lots of queer characters.
Did you connect to Talia’s confusion about her identity? You’ll probably like Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, which follows a young trans man who is still confused about who he is and, over the course of the novel, figures himself out.