The Best Man by Richard Peck

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best-manThe Best Man by Richard Peck
Dial, 2016

Richard Peck’s perceptive and sunshine-warm middle-grade story of male role models naturally integrates a love story between two men, but is slightly marred by some stereotyped characters.

In a comfortably middle-class white suburb of Chicago, 6th grade narrator, blithely naïve Archer Magill, starts the story as a white velvet beshorted ring bearer at one wedding, and closes it as the Ralph Lauren-clad best man at the wedding of his Uncle Paul to teacher Ed McLeod. Between the two, Archer gives us vignettes of his school life, and the reader gets to know Archer’s laid back and empathetic Dad, and big-hearted Grandpa, and will understand why Archer wants to be them.

Peck succeeds admirably in creating two gay role models for Archer, though they are perhaps a little caricatured, with their emphasis on looking good (and it appears that not wearing socks with wingtips is a signifier of homosexuality). However, both Uncle Paul, a hotshot PR guy who remains close to his family, and swoony Mr. McLeod, who, literally, comes out in defense of a student bullies label as gay, embody the idea that “being gay isn’t a decision. How you live your life is a decision.”

However, the author irritatingly stereotypes female educators as either ineffectual and fluffy or battle axes, whereas dreamy Mr. McLeod, not yet qualified, is imaginative, authoritative and effective. And a British character is introduced who appears to be inspired by 1950’s ideas of what an English aristocrat should be. While this is clearly nothing like as egregious as stereotypes of people of color, it detracts and unbalances the other more realistically created characters. (I should note that none of the reviews mention these – maybe being a British female educator has just made me a bit sensitive)

There are many laughs in the novel – from Archer’s Youtube appearance with his split velvet shorts to the farce of Mr. McLeod’s first entrance – as well as more serious moments when Archer begins to get to grips with what growing up, and being grown up, mean. Overall, the author builds an idyllic, yet realistic, slice of one boy’s life, with its ups and downs, while gently slipping in a message of tolerance.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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