The Dangerous Art of Blending In
Balzer + Bray
January 30, 2018
I’ve been trying to read more LGBTQIA books lately, so when the opportunity arose to read The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis, I took it. I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story and for self-acceptance narratives, so a book about a boy coming to terms with his sexuality despite a disapproving mother seemed like something I would be into.
In the novel, seventeen-year-old Greek immigrant Evan Panos struggles to keep all the different aspects of his life separate. He’s gay, a realization that he’s come to terms with after a kiss at church camp and a growing attraction to his best friend Henry. He’s also being abused, physically and verbally, at the hands of his mother.
Despite reading the book’s description, I wasn’t quite prepared for how dark this novel can be. Evan is in a precarious position when the reader first meets him, trying to balance school, the abuse at home, and his new attraction to Henry, and things only get more complicated.
His mother is a true terror, prone to violent outbursts in private, but almost sickeningly sweet in public. Evan’s home life is heartbreaking and disturbing to read, a fact amplified by the inertia displayed by Evan’s father. And beyond his sketchbook, Evan has no real outlets. Surmelis based the novel on his own childhood, and I think that contributes to the rawness and realism of Evan’s narration in these moments of stress and isolation. However, it should be noted that I am neither gay nor a survivor of abuse, so my understanding is likely limited.
Tension builds quickly as Evan grows closer to Henry and his mother’s abuse escalates. Evan’s interpersonal and inner conflicts drew me in and had me rushing through the pages of this book, hoping the conflicts would be resolved well and that Evan would regain agency and begin a better life. I’m happy to report that though there is hardship and violence, this novel does ultimately show that there is an escape from darkness.
If it weren’t for the abuse storyline, The Dangerous Art would be a love story. Blurbs compare it to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, but the fact is, it’s pretty hard to separate Henry and Evan’s changing relationship from the trauma Evan experiences at home.
I’m not of the mind that survivors of trauma or those with mental illness must “love themselves before loving other people.” But because of Evan’s traumatic past and the fact that Henry is Evan’s only source of support, beyond a father who fails to act time and time again, there is a power imbalance between them. With this in mind, some of Henry’s actions can seem demanding or insensitive. For example, he tires to pull up Evan’s shirt to see evidence of his abuse and also tells Evan he needs to “pull [his] shit” so Evan can meet his emotional needs. There’s a reason that Evan is so closed off, but Henry doesn’t always seem receptive to this. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel there are hints that Evan is finding other sources of support and means of fulfillment, so the imbalance becomes less notable.
I applaud this novel for taking on such a difficult subject matter and doing so with nuance. I’m glad Angelo Surmelis had the chance to tell his story. I hope it rings true for those that see themselves in Evan, and that it gives peace and positivity to those that need it.