Book review: Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

When you dive into a book, there are three key things you hope will be presented and accounted for:

  1. Characters who are so fully-realised that you swear they are but a sentence or two from leaping off the page.
  2. Writing that sweeps you up in its grasp such that you often have to go and re-read a passage just because it feels gloriously alive, and
  3. A story so enveloping and rapturously well-told that the temptation to stay up all night just to finish it is a very real one indeed and often acceded to, next day exhaustion be damned

Literary hope may spring eternal but it’s not always rewarded alas; thankfully the debut novel from Tobias Madden, Anything But Fine, ticks all three boxes with such vivacious energy and warm humanity, not to mention a healthy, heart-affirming dose of queer romance, that you spend much of your time being glad that novels like this exist.

Set in the author’s hometown of Ballarat, which is vividly and lovingly brought to life that it honestly feels like another character in the book, cliched as that might sound, Anything But Fine centres on an aspiring gay 16-year-old ballet dancer, Luca, who is so talented and driven that a berth at the Australian Ballet School is all but assured.

Surrounded by three close gal pals, Grace, Talia and Abbey, that he’s known from childhood, and supported by his single father – his wife and Luca’s mother died 13 or so years before but remains a potent presence in their life – Luca has the world at his beautifully pointed feet, a young man who knows firmly who he is and what he wants to do with his life.

“And it makes no difference to him whether I like him or not. He’s one of those people who has everything going for them, you know? And it’s the same with Amina. Because she has school. She has her ridiculous brain. Her family. Her faith. They both have so many things. So much that makes them them.

And without ballet, without the Bunheads, without my non-existent chances with Jordan …

What the hell do I have?” (P. 107)

What could possibly go wrong with fate so staunchly in his corner?

Quite a lot as it turns out sadly, and after a terrible fall down steep steeps at the ballet school he’s attended since he was three, Luca finds himself with a broken foot so profoundly injured that any dreams he has of a career as a professional dancer are now as dead as his once-vital zest for life.

What follows in a novel that is brutally honest but deliciously hopeful all at once, thanks to characters like Luca’s dad and his new bestie Amina, is nothing short of life-changing.

In short order, Luca has to deal with the loss of his identity as a ballet dancer, and major disruptions to his schooling and friendships, so momentous that he is send spinning, caught in the kind of existential grief that is familiar to anyone who has ever had their dreams well and truly trashed by a vindictive universe.

It makes sense that Luca would be at a loss to know what to do and while meeting him doesn’t change his life to begin with, a chance encounter with Jordan, a handsome, talented and highly personable high school rowing star and AFL team captain certainly promises the possibility of love and romance, a welcome turn of events during an oppressively bleak time.

Tobias Madden (image courtesy Penguin Books Australua (c) Kate Williams)

The only problem? Jordan is straight, sporting, quite literally, a group of jock friends including the homophobically odious Gibbo, who’s as socially inept and cruel as his nickname suggests, and a girlfriend, all of which serve as a warning to Luca not to get his hopes up.

But how can he not – he and Jordan bond over physio appointments and a shared love of Disney animated musicals, and try as he might Luca can’t help but pile a whole of rose-coloured romantic “what-ifs?” as the door to his heart, hoping that Jordan will maybe, hopefully, could he, step right through.

Oh the tension and the lovelornness of it all.

Anything But Fine is all agony and ecstasy, capturing the promise of young love, against all the odds, but also the gnawing impossibility of hoping for something you can’t have – or can you?

As Jordan and Luca see-saw back and forth on a will they-won’t they ride into our hearts, and each other’s, Madden waves a touching tale that is deeply cognisant of the entrenched power of grief and loss but also the liberating and hopeful power of love when you least expecting it.

Madden, who worked previously as a dancer, primarily in musicals, is all too aware of the potent power of creative dreams and uses that to inform the character of Luca with a believably grounded humanity that means that while he reacts understandably badly to the unexpected and harsh cards he has been dealt, he always comes across as someone whose suffering makes perfect sense.

“Anger. Humiliations. Hurt. Betrayal.

He turns back to the lockers, pulls some books out and slams the door shut before walking off towards the quad. And suddenly I’m on that staircase again.

Falling and falling and falling.

I feel the bones break. I hear them splinter and crack.

One missed step and it’s all over.

One missed step. It’s as simple as that.” (P. 293)

So, too, his hopefulness which despite his heart’s best efforts to derail him from expecting anything good of life ever again, surges with a vivacity that is all all-consumingly wonderful and instantly recognisable to anyone who has had to face up to the seeming impossibility of their heart’s desires while confronting the fact that, against all odds, hope is somehow leaping to the fore?

Charmingly, richly alive and awash in a love story so potent it will make you sigh often and always, Anything But Fine is a joy to read, an affirmative journey into the darkest and lightest places in life, that effervescently explores what life is like for a queer young man on the cusp of life.

Any LGBTQI+ readers will immediately warm to this story but then so will anyone of any sexual standing because the themes in this sweetly uplifting book are so universal and true to the expansiveness of human experience.

We have all had dreams dashed beyond all hope and recognition struggled to find a way back out of the abyss into which helplessly plunge and have made some terrible decisions while we’re there, alienating those we love at a time we need them the most.

What makes Anything But Fine, with its sparkling characterisation, engrossing plot and gorgeously alive writing such a pleasure to read is that is embraces both the bad and the good of life, asking some pertinent, hard-hitting questions about grief, identity and love, and answering with the kind of hopefulness that might seem fanciful in life’s more blighted passages but which turns out the truest and most surest thing of all.

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