Book review

In Morgan Rogers’ debut novel “Honey Girl,” Grace Porter is in her late 20s and has just finished her doctorate in astronomy. The child of a white orange grove farmer and a Black military man, Grace — who goes by Porter — coped with her parents’ divorce, her mother’s flightiness and her father’s rigid form of love by doggedly pursuing an academic career.

But even in so doing, she was looking toward the stars.

When she is gifted a girls’ weekend with her friends in Las Vegas after graduation, those stars collide: Porter ends up married to a woman she doesn’t know. But the biggest surprise? She really, really wants to grow closer with her new wife.

The story unfolds from there in ways that defy neat labels of “romance” or “coming-of-age,” although there are strong elements of both. Instead, Rogers leans into the messy constellation of life for a young, Black, queer professional in a world that doesn’t always — or almost ever — make sense.

When a should-be shoo-in job interview reveals to Porter, again, the ingrained whiteness of academia that will continue to try to block her at every turn, she retreats into herself.

“She is afraid of being a brown, gold, bee-honey lesbian in an academic industry all too willing to overlook the parts of her that don’t make sense to them,” Rogers writes. “No one told her astronomers, the ones that publish research every few months and get tenured at universities and navigate programs at NASA … don’t have ancestors who looked at the stars as a means of escape and not in awe.”

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The Vegas weekend meant to celebrate her graduation is soured by this racially motivated rejection from what Porter thought was her dream job. She drinks a lot. She meets a girl, Yuki, and their night becomes a rosy fever dream of two celestial bodies meeting in a desert. Yuki disappears before Porter wakes up, but leaves a card on the nightstand for her Brooklyn-based late-night storytelling radio show. When Porter returns home to Portland, reeling from the wrench in her career path, she tunes into Yuki’s show and feels only more drawn to her. They reconnect over text, and decide that Porter should come stay with Yuki in New York City for the summer while she figures out next steps. In the process, the two women fall more in love, which inevitably also includes friction.

Porter is an engaging protagonist, and she is enriched by the characters around her. Her love story with Yuki is not the only, or even the primary, relationship in the story. While Yuki and Porter’s love is a driving force, “Honey Girl” centers queer friendship above all else. Both Porter and Yuki have rich queer community, and these characters are fully rendered and crucial to the scaffolding of the story. It is refreshing, and moving, to read a book about queer love that ripples much further out than the narrow definition of love that heterosexual culture tells us is primary. The love between friends can be, and often is, more profound than any other kind of love.

Like this friendship, Porter’s longing is layered: She longs to please her family, longs for justice, longs for acceptance and love. But she also has a lot of these things. “She may be lonely, feel lonely,” Rogers writes, “but she has never really been alone. She is still trying to absorb that.”

The tension between having deeply meaningful relationships and still experiencing loneliness — which for Porter and her friends is tied to depression and other mental illness — is a common experience, but one rarely rendered wholly in fiction. Rogers stays with her characters through this tension, and during their more challenging moments.

At times, “Honey Girl” veers into the saccharine. It drips with the astronomical imagery, and wears a groove in its circling back on its use of metaphors — for example, monsters as metaphor for struggle with mental illness and sirens as metaphor for loving over a distance, whether it be geographical or a more ethereal gap. But there is something to be said for saccharine, and something to be said for a groove, too. Especially in a book that in many ways is about working one’s way through feeling stuck, repetition has its place. And in a love story, who doesn’t like a little sweetness?

“Honey Girl” is an absorbing read, and deftly captures the trappings of millennial life, especially for queer Black, Indigenous and people of color characters in American cities. Its expansion on what a love story can be feels restorative, especially as we cross the threshold into our second year of a pandemic during which expressing love has become more important than ever. This is the kind of non-YA coming-of-age novel the world could use more of.

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‘Honey Girl’

Morgan Rogers, Park Row, 304 pp., $13.59