Acclaimed novelist, poet, and playwright R. Zamora Linmark makes his first foray into young adult literature with The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart, a big-hearted novel about friendship, first love and, inevitably, sadness and pain.
The story takes place on Kristol, a fictitious island nation cleaved into an independent North and South. The South, where high school senior Ken Z and his best friends CaZZ and Estelle live, plays poor relation to the military-run North. On an Oscar Wilde-inspired “bunburying” escape to an upscale mall in the North, Ken Z meets the charismatic and mysterious Ran—a boy from the North who transforms Ken Z’s heart into a “lively cage of hummingbirds.”
Though a bit stymied by the complications of geography, Ken Z and Ran manage to create their own spring break romance bubble, complete with one of the most artfully described first kisses this reviewer has ever encountered. In fact, Ken Z’s kissing education is so thorough that he’s able to offer a series of 7 lessons to his readers. Lesson 3 is especially lovely: “…kiss like you’re telling a story with another person,” he instructs, “in a language that’s completely yours, with the two of you making it up as you go along.” Ken Z’s pivotal moments, including this one, often feature imaginary conversations with his hero Oscar Wilde. Full of wit and sage advice, these cameos lend a quirky charm to the story.
First love is fragile, mercurial, and nearly always destined for heartbreak. The beauty of it is that we dive in anyway because love, as Oscar Wilde patiently explains to Ken Z, enlarges our world. The same can be said of true friendship. Ken Z’s ride-or-die crew includes the androgynous, “twice beautiful” Estelle, as well as CaZZ, who has been bullied and beaten because of her trans identity. Though he keeps them in the dark about his relationship with Ran, the two are patient, protective, and ready when he finally needs them. The fierce loyalty of his friends combined with a penchant for art-making (he’s a compulsive list-maker and genius writer of haikus) help Ken Z build a bulwark against his eventual misery.
The novel also touches on themes of sexual and gender identity, alienation, militarization, government corruption, socioeconomics, censorship—heady topics made accessible by the fact that Linmark has gifted his narrator with a wry intelligence shot through with humor and goodness. Who could possibly resist a kid like Ken Z who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the life and times of the fascinating Oscar Wilde, keeps a “Dictionary of Speechless Moments,” and nurses an obsession with emperor penguins?
With the exception of Mr. Oku, the excellent teacher who supervises Ken Z’s Oscar Wilde book club, adults feel almost spectral here, floating around the edges of these young adult lives. Towards the end, though, Ken Z’s hard-working mother makes a poignant appearance, gently nudging her son to the other side of his heartbreak. Tender, funny, and beautifully written, The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart is a sensitive exploration of a plaintive question from Ken Z: “What am I supposed to do with all these wonderful feelings and memories mixed in with the not-so-wonderful?”
By R. Zamora Linmark
329 pp. Delacorte Press. $17.99
In case you missed it, read our interview with Veronica Montes here.