I’m always on the hunt for a good New Adult novel, and with comparisons to Red, White & Royal Blue and Boyfriend Material, I was eager to dive into Never Been Kissed by Timothy Janovsky (Boy Meets Boy #1). Unfortunately, it failed to deliver.
In Never Been Kissed, Wren Roland has you guessed it, never been kissed. With college graduation looming and the future looking uncertain (what’s he going to do with a film degree?), he feels like he’s falling behind on the milestones his peers have long since experienced. So, in a fit of drunken bravado and desperation on the night of his 22nd birthday, he sends out four emails that have been sitting in his drafts for years – one for each boy he almost kissed.
Regret sets in the next morning, heightened by his hangover and a response from Derick Haverford, the best friend who ghosted him freshman year. “I didn’t think of you like that” wasn’t exactly what he was hoping to hear, but it’s fine; Wren can ghost him right back – except it turns out Derick is the new social media intern at Wiley’s Drive-In, where Wren has just been promoted to manager after working there every summer since he was 15.
The main draw is ostensibly the romance between Wren and Derick, but it falls a little flat. Rather than a slow build, it’s more like a plateau followed by a sudden spike. One minute the boys are slowly becoming friends again and the next Derick is making a move – which backfires. This does lead to some discussion of demisexuality, which is nice – and rare – to see, but the way demisexuality is explained to Wren feels like an after-school special and is only shallowly explored.
Derick also feels a bit shallow, the outline of a leading man without the details filled in. Wren is more fleshed out, awkward, and overthinking, and his post-college “now what?” uncertainty is definitely relatable. But for all the buildup about that silver screen-worthy first kiss, when it finally happens. it’s anticlimactic and brief.
Overall, the book feels very immature, in both story and style.
Wren and his friends seem more like teens than 20-somethings, and I think it would have worked better as a YA novel. However, the purple prose is the biggest distraction. Lines that are clearly meant to be romantic or evocative are just cheesy, and it seems like every other paragraph contains an overwrought simile or metaphor.
It also gets bogged down in minutiae that doesn’t serve the story, and Wren’s voice is sometimes weirdly formal and stilted. It just feels like it’s trying too hard, but there are occasional turns of phrases that land beautifully, suggesting that with some more practice and polish the author has potential.
The real appeal of the novel is in Wiley’s Drive-In and Alice Kelly, the notorious local recluse whose 1970s directorial debut was cut short by a bitter husband and industry misogyny. Wiley’s evokes strong nostalgia and summer vibes, especially if, like me, you grew up going to a local mom-and-pop drive-in joint.
With Wiley’s struggling in the modern age of blockbusters and IMAX, Wren is desperate to save it and he knows just the thing – hosting the premiere that never was for Alice Kelly’s Chompin’ at the Bit, a zombie movie with queer undertones that’s been locked away since the original premiere was canceled after a smear campaign by her less-talented husband. He just has to convince Alice, which is easier said than done.
I would love to read a whole novel about Alice. She’s eccentric and angry and brilliant. Her own queer love story that tragically ended too soon, which inspired Chompin’ at the Bit, and the sexist vitriol of the film industry that drove her into hiding are only briefly summarized. There’s so much left to be explored, and so much that could be said about our society, in her story.
Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Casablanca for the review copy. You can find the full synopsis below.
Dear (never-been-quite-over-you) Crush,
It’s been a few years since we were together,
but I can’t stop thinking about the time we almost…
Wren Roland has never been kissed, but he wants that movie-perfect ending more than anything. Feeling nostalgic on the eve of his birthday, he sends emails to all the boys he (ahem) loved before he came out. Morning brings the inevitable Oh God What Did I Do?, but he brushes that panic aside. Why stress about it? None of his could-have-beens are actually going to read the emails, much less respond. Right?
Enter Derick Haverford, Wren’s #1 pre-coming-out-crush and his drive-in theater’s new social media intern. Everyone claims he’s coasting on cinematic good looks and his father’s connections, but Wren has always known there’s much more to Derick than meets the eye. Too bad he doesn’t feel the same way about the infamous almost-kiss that once rocked Wren’s world.
Whatever. Wren’s no longer a closeted teenager; he can survive this. But as their hazy summer becomes consumed with a special project that may just save the struggling drive-in for good, Wren and Derick are drawn ever-closer…and maybe, finally, Wren’s dream of a perfect-kiss-before-the-credits is within reach.
A feel-good summer LGBTQIA+ New Adult RomCom, perfect for fans of Red White & Royal Blue, Boyfriend Material, and What If It’s Us.