Title: How to Repair a Mechanical Heart
Author: J.C. Lillis
Genre: Contemporary, Romance, YA
Rating: ★★★☆☆ | 3.0
How to Repair a Mechanical Heart has a lot of things to recommend it: a fluffy gay romance, a quirky sensibility, and a knowledge of fandom that speaks to the author being engaged in it. The novel was well-written, and it didn’t condescend to fandom (and in particular, the fangirls)––in fact, it satirises anboys who condescend to girls for being into ships and writing fic. It felt a lot like Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda, but where Alberti’s book felt at times to me to be trying Too Hard, Lillis’ book felt very naturalistic.
Yet somehow, I wasn’t engaged.
If y’all have been following us over on the Tumblr, you know I was complaining for several weeks about how slowly I was getting through the novel, despite how interesting it was in theory. I think part of it is that I’m kind of bored of reading about white boys, but part of it is me.
How to Repair a Mechanical Heart follows two boys, Able and Brandon, who run a fan vlog together for the Star Trek expy show. They get into a fanwar with a group of fic-writing fangirls who ship Cadmus and Sim (aka Kirk and Spock), and set out on a roadtrip to various fan cons in order to prove the shippers wrong.
One of the things I found really interesting about this novel is that it deals with religion, which I feel like has been absent in a lot of the queer lit I’ve read, despite all that religious dogma has shaped much of queer discourse in America. Brandon is not a lapsed Catholic who rejects the tenets of religion, but a practicing Catholic whose religion, whose church, and whose spirituality are important to him, even central to his worldview, but this causes both external and internal conflicts. And I really enjoyed that it was such a nuanced take on what it means to be both gay and Catholic.
The relationship between Able and Brandon in this context was quite tense––Able had an ex who was forced into conversion therapy, and as a result, he’s very antagonistic towards any outward display of religiosity, and it becomes a really big source of conflict between them, because he sees Brandon’s religion as a source of shame. And shame is a large part of Brandon’s relationship to fandom, also.
Brandon reads fic, but feels bad about it. He likes Cadsim, but he doesn’t want to admit it to Able. So shame, and living under the specter of it, is one of the larger themes of the novel, but it wasn’t necessarily about shame. It was about two boys who are fans of a thing and have fun on a road trip, and the narrative was really well-done in terms of emotional development and both addressing larger issues and depicting the minutiae of being alive and falling in love.
So this novel is doing a lot of interesting work and it should have been compelling to me, and I do think that other people might like it. But for me, it ended up feeling scattered and flimsy. I can’t even point out what, precisely, didn’t work, which is probably a good indication that it wasn’t the book, it was me, and the book just hit me in the wrong moment.
Overall, not a bad book, even if I didn’t love it.