Review: Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

Boy Toy Book Cover Boy Toy
Barry Lyga

Josh Mendel has a secret. Unfortunately, everyone knows what it is.  Five years ago, Josh’s life changed. Drastically. And everyone in his school, his town—seems like the world—thinks they understand. But they don’t—they can’t.

And now, about to graduate from high school, Josh is still trying to sort through the pieces. First there’s Rachel, the girl he thought he’d lost years ago. She’s back, and she’s determined to be part of his life, whether he wants her there or not. 

Then there are college decisions to make, and the toughest baseball game of his life coming up, and a coach who won’t stop pushing Josh all the way to the brink. 

And then there’s Eve. Her return brings with it all the memories of Josh’s past. It’s time for Josh to face the truth about what happened.

If only he knew what the truth was . . .

Review:

I used to work for a local newspaper, and one of my tasks was typing up the weekly police blotter. Most of the contents of the blotter were your run-of-the-mill car accidents, petty theft, or disorderly conduct, but every now and then a report of child molestation would come across my desk. The reports were sickening, and each time I typed up the details of the incident I would ask myself a) how someone could be twisted enough to engage in a sexual relationship with a child and b) how that relationship had come about in the first place.

Barry Lyga explores the answers to those questions, and more, in Boy Toy. The story centers on Josh Mendel, a senior in high school who, five years earlier, was involved in a full-blown affair with his seventh-grade history teacher. The book goes back and forth between the present and the past, taking you through the life of the affair from beginning to end and showing the impact it has on Josh’s life five years after the fact.

The amazing thing about Boy Toy is that even though it’s about a very heavy subject, it’s still compelling. I honestly could not stop reading it – I switched from my small purse to my jumbo diaper bag of a purse just so I could carry Boy Toy with me everywhere I went. I wanted to hear Josh’s story. I wanted to understand. How on earth did a 12-year-old boy end up having sex with his teacher? What did the teacher see in him? How was their relationship discovered? What were the implications for Josh later, as a teenager?

What’s brilliant about Lyga’s writing is that he makes you look at things in ways you’d never expect. For one thing, I never would have anticipated that I would sympathize with Eve, the woman who molested Josh. This isn’t to say I think what she does is right – there’s no doubt that it is twisted and wrong and incredibly screwed up. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that Eve is more than just your cardboard villain. She seems like a real person, with complicated motivations and clear strengths as well as clear weaknesses. She seems to truly care about Josh in her own messed up way, taking him on dates, cooking for him, cheering him on at his baseball games, etc. Where it all goes wrong is in the progression of their relationship from platonic to physical.

Lyga has caught some flack for the intensity of the sex scenes in Boy Toy. Some readers argue that the scenes are gratuitous and inappropriate, focusing on feelings of excitement and eroticism rather than trauma or violation. I disagree with those readers wholeheartedly; I think the fact that the sex scenes are so hot and heavy is part of what makes the book successful.

Before you start calling me a sick creep, let me explain. I do find it disturbing and twisted that Josh’s teacher seduced him, but I can’t deny that if the scenes were written between two consenting adults rather than a teacher and underage student, they’d be incredibly arousing. Reading the details of Josh’s sexual encounters triggered warring emotions of disgust, excitement, and shame, which is exactly what Josh feels when he thinks back to his experiences with his teacher. It put me in Josh’s shoes and helped me realize just how confused and conflicted he must have felt.

Lyga’s ability to make his readers see things from the point of view of his characters is one of his many gifts as a writer. It’s scary how easy it is to understand why Eve falls for Josh. He’s different from the other kids at his school, mature for his age, precocious, thoughtful. Even at 12 he is almost as tall as Eve herself. He’s capable of holding meaningful conversations with her, of understanding her humor and making her laugh in return.

Josh at 18, the age he is when recounting the events of the book, is no less amazing. He’s insanely smart, with a nearly photographic memory and the ability to calculate the square root of 52 or the product of 12 and 144 in his head. He’s enthralled by the stars and planets. He dedicates himself to working hard at all that he does, whether in the classroom or on the baseball diamond, where he’s a star hitter.

It’s incredibly fascinating to watch Josh try to come to terms with what happened to him all those years ago, to witness him trying to deal with the guilt and the embarrassment of knowing that everyone in his town knows all the details of his sex life. He’s got a great voice, with a compelling blend of attitude and self-consciousness. I developed a bit of a book crush on him, and he’ll go down in my mind as one of my all-time favorite characters.

Barry Lyga is an author who never disappoints me. He always presents a unique perspective, troubled but enthralling characters, and a plot that keeps you interested from start to finish. I strongly encourage you to go out and read Boy Toy. I know I’ll be revisiting it over and over again.

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