The trope of a bully blackmailing a closeted queer person is well established in YA. Arvin Ahmadi’s How It All Blew Up makes an intriguing addition to the canon of such stories. We’re introduced to recent high school graduate Amir in an airport interrogation room, as he recounts the last year of his life to very patient Customs and Border Protection agents.
During senior year, two of Amir’s longtime bullies discover his secret relationship with Jackson, a sensitive football player, and demand that he pay them off with money he earns online. When they get greedy, Amir feels trapped, afraid of revealing his sexuality to his conservative Muslim family. With logic that only a desperate teenager could make sense of, he makes a run for it and finds himself in scenic Rome.
Ahmadi blows through the entirety of Love, Simon in this setup, and thank goodness, because once the familiar signposts of the trope fall away, the story really shines. Amir explores his identity and desires along with his new surroundings. He makes older queer friends who teach him about Nina Simone and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” takes Italian lessons and parties into the wee hours of the morning. His new friends become a chosen family of mentors whose help any young outsider would be happy to have on their journey to self-discovery. The relationships Amir builds with these characters are truly the highlight of the novel.
Amir can be a frustrating protagonist, but Ahmadi authentically depicts the growing pains of a young queer person reconciling his sexual orientation with the expectations of two communities—LGBTQ and Muslim. The result is occasionally awkward but always brimming with sincerity. “It’s such a privilege, you know?” Amir reflects. “To get to be yourself, all of yourself, in this great big world.”