REVIEW: The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickles

The Official Description: Set in 1986, a year after Rock Hudson’s death brought the news of AIDS into living rooms and kitchens across America, Lambda Literary award-winning author Carter Sickels’s second novel shines light on an overlooked part of the epidemic, those men who returned to the rural communities and families who’d rejected them.

Six short years after Brian Jackson moved to New York City in search of freedom and acceptance, AIDS has claimed his lover, his friends, and his future. With nothing left in New York but memories of death, Brian decides to write his mother a letter asking to come back to the place, and family, he was once so desperate to escape.

The Prettiest Star is told in a chorus of voices: Brian’s mother Sharon; his fourteen-year-old sister, Jess, as she grapples with her brother’s mysterious return; and the video diaries Brian makes to document his final summer.

Part Dog Years by Mark Doty and part Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, The Prettiest Star is an urgent story about the politics and fragility of the body, of sex and shame. Above all, Carter Sickels’s stunning novel explores the bounds of family and redemption. It is written at the far reaches of love and understanding, centering on the moments where those two forces stretch toward each other and sometimes touch.

Just the facts: Living and dying with HIV/AIDS, shame, family

Books like this are vital. There are still stories from the queer community that we need to hear…and absorb. Sickels has written one of those stories. – Kinzie Things

My thoughts bit: 

When I finished reading this book, I had to just set it aside for a while before writing my review. It wasn’t that I was going to have difficulty writing a review… I just wanted to sit with all the emotions that it brought up for me. Full disclosure: I ran a consumer-driven AIDS support organization for over a decade so this book depicts a time I’m intimately familiar with. Sickels has written a stunning novel that is important and relevant.

This book is written from several points of view. At the very beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to Brian. Brian has lost his lover to AIDS, most of his friends, his career dreams and his health and he’s contemplating putting an end to it all. He doesn’t attempt to end his life; he returns to the home he fled right after high school. Set in the late 80s, early years in the battle against AIDS, Brian is returning home to a town that knows nothing about HIV and AIDS. He’s returning to the subtle and blatant homophobia he fled. He’s returning to a family that hardly knows him.

Brian’s mother, Sharon and his sister Jess also take the reigns of this story from time to time. It’s never jarring and it always weaves more detail into the strange tapestry of Brian’s family. One of the most poignant POVs in the novel is the voice of the videos that Brian continues to film. He picked up a camera when he moved to New York… and he promised his dying lover that he would continue to document. He documents even if he doesn’t always seem certain what he’s supposed to be capturing. There is some subtle beautiful, fear and shame in all the words that come from Brian. He’s a remarkable, authentic character.

I suppose this book is about shame in all its incarnations. There’s shame in sex… something that once brought so much pleasure and now seems responsible for a deadly illness. There’s shame in being born in a way that doesn’t fit with the people around you. There’s the shame of a family as they struggle to come to terms with sexuality and illness. Most poignant for me probably was the relationship – or lack thereof – between Brian and his father Travis. Sickels does a remarkable job of portraying the confusion, pain, anger, and fear that contributes to homophobia within the confines of an otherwise loving family.

Brian goes home… without even really knowing what he’s seeking. I think part of this story is about family, and home and what those two things are. And once Brian is at home… it’s another gay man named Andrew who steps in to care for him. It’s a touching relationship that builds between the two men, a relationship based on the common ground of chosen family… the people who step in when everyone else is frozen with fear. There is a moment of clarity between Andrew and Brian’s mother deep in the book that absolutely struck a chord in me. Sharon is a mother who has lost her way and it takes an almost-stranger to try and lead her in the right direction.

“I don’t want to put you out. You don’t have to do this.”

Andrew neatly folds the towel and drapes it over the counter. “Yes, I do. I have to, and so do you. It’s the only option.” He looks at me, serious and clear-eyed. “This is the only thing we have to do. Take care of him.”

I could pull many quotes from this book to show you the eloquence and beauty of Sickel’s writing, but I would rather you read the book and draw your own conclusions.

This book is vital. The further we move away from the initial impact of HIV/AIDS and the horrendous loss of life that resulted, the less defined our memory of the time becomes. We mustn’t forget what happened. We can’t afford to forget that many people still live daily with the kind of homophobia and bigotry that is nestled so peacefully in some families under the guise of being “righteous”.

Things You May Want To Know: Please be aware, I’m by no means an expert on what may or may not have the potential to disturb people. I simply list things that I think a reader might want to be aware of. In this book: (SPOILERS) Vivid descriptions of dying of AIDS, homophobia, hate crime, physical assault, homophobic family members, death of a partner, death of the main character, suicidal ideation, a character expresses fear of death.

Readalikes: Other stories that are similar or give the same feel.

Links: Goodreads // The Author // The Publisher

I received an ARC of The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickelfrom Hub Cityvia Edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

ratings legend

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