Always the Almost is a sweet and uplifting queer YA coming of age story and romance. Trans teen pianist Miles Jacobson has two New Year resolutions: win the annual piano competition and finally beat his long-time rival Cameron, and win back his ex-boyfriend Shane, who’d dumped him after Miles came out as trans. Things take a turn when Miles meets new boy Eric Mendez, a proudly queer cartoonist who asks for Miles’ pronouns when they first meet, and who seems to understand Miles much more than Shane ever did.
In the foreword, the author provides some content warnings, along with a content promise: this story will have a happy ending. In the afterword, the author writes that this book is all about queer joy. And indeed, even long before the promised happy ending, this book is very much a celebration of queer joy. Miles’ piano teacher comments that he plays like he “doesn’t know who he is” — the metaphor is rather obvious, but as a reader, you just get so caught up in Miles’ story that you can’t help but be drawn into his struggle anyway. The author’s descriptions of the Miles’ piano playing are powerfully evocative. Miles comes to several important epiphanies while practicing for the competition, and as a result, his piano playing isn’t just a technical feat, nor is it even just a sharing of his story; rather, each practice and each competition is a journey towards his triumph. He learns not only who he is, but to celebrate all that the totality of his identity implies.
Miles is a flawed character, and I love how the author shows him growing as a person. The book also includes some incidents of transphobia, and how Miles’ pain at times prevents him from fully being himself. But what I love is that the author also shows how his pain sometimes keeps him from recognizing and responding to other people’s pain. This plays out most obviously in his relationship with Eric. There’s a moment in the book where Miles does something that seriously hurts Eric, and causes Eric to pull away from him. In his attempt to make up, Miles focuses not on the harm he did, but rather on how much Eric’s support helps him perform well on the piano. Worse, he chooses to do so at a time when Eric is dealing with family stuff that are, quite frankly, more important than Miles’ feelings at that point. Eric rightly calls him out on such a selfish, self-centred attempt at apologizing, and Miles’ journey towards realizing what he did wrong (it took him several more chapters to figure it out, LOL) is gratifying to see.
I like how the author creates nuance in his characters — even Miles’ ex-boyfriend Shane isn’t a complete jerk, and there’s a lovely moment when Miles realizes that Shane was genuinely trying to understand what Miles was going through. Cameron and his piano teacher remain straight-up villains till the end, but I like how some of the other competitors are fleshed out as characters even though they only show up for a couple of scenes. The subplot regarding the romance between Miles’ best friends Rachel and Paige are also compelling, and I like that a secondary character involved in that subplot was also given nuance.
Overall, this is a lovely read. Queer and trans readers may want to look up the author’s content warnings, as Miles, Eric, and some of the other characters do deal with some difficult experiences. But the main impression I got (with my admittedly straight and cis perspective) is one of triumph and joy. I loved following Miles through his journey, and cheering him and his friends on towards their respective versions of happiness.
Thank you to St Martins Press for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.