A Vogue Magazine Best LGBTQ Book of 2023
James Frankie Thomas’s Idlewild is a darkly funny story of two adults looking back on their intense teenage friendship, in a queer, trans, and early-Internet twist on the Manhattan prep school novel.
Idlewild is a tiny, artsy Quaker high school in lower Manhattan. Students call their teachers by their first names, there are no grades, and every day begins with 20 minutes of contemplative silence in the Meetinghouse. It is during one of those meetings that an airplane hits the Twin Towers.
For two Idlewild outcasts, 9/11 serves as the first day of an intense, 18-month friendship. Fay is prickly, aloof, and obsessed with gay men; Nell is shy, sensitive, and obsessed with Fay. The two of them bond fiercely and spend all their waking hours giddily parsing their environment for homoerotic subtext. Then, during rehearsals for the fall play, they notice two sexually ambiguous boys who are potential candidates for their exclusive Invert Society. The pairs become mirrors of one another and drive each other to make choices that they’ll regret for the rest of their lives.
Looking back on these events as adults, the estranged Fay and Nell trace that fateful school year, recalling backstage theater department intrigue, antiwar demonstrations, smutty fanfic written over AIM, a shared dial-up connection—and the spectacular cascade of mistakes, miscommunications, and betrayals that would ultimately tear the two of them apart.
About the Author
James Frankie Thomas is a lifelong New Yorker. He attended the City College of New York and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has worked as a video store clerk, a Shakespeare tutor, and the “YA of Yore” columnist for the Paris Review; he was most recently a theater critic at Vulture. Idlewild is his first novel.
“An achingly precise novel about a very specific stage . . . Idlewild’s pleasures aren’t accessible only to the relatively small group of people who appreciate the nuances between a Blogspot and a LiveJournal. There’s something universal in the book’s careful excavation of complicated relationships, its compassionate understanding of how friends at that age can love and resent and envy and condescend to each other all at once.”
“A deeply relatable portrait of queer adolescence . . . With any hope, it will go down in the annals of high-school-theater-kid literary history like Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise.”
—Vogue, Best LGBTQ+ Books of the Year (So Far)
“[A] hilarious and sexy debut . . . Equal parts funny and insightful, this is a propulsive exploration of gender identity, sexuality, and self-discovery.”
“Idlewild is an outrageously funny novel that is deeply serious about the joys and calamities of friendship. With rare skill and precision, James Frankie Thomas captures all the laughter, the tears, and the ever-evolving inside jokes that cohere between two people who have finally found each other in the strangest place imaginable. This novel made me want to call my oldest friends, only to realize that the numbers are all changed. Idlewild is a major novel—modern and singular. James Frankie Thomas has written a new novel of friendship for a new world. We’re all better for it.”—Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life and Filthy Animals
“[An] intoxicating debut . . . Thomas astutely captures his characters’ anxieties as the drama unfolds, and his choice to give them the benefit of hindsight allows for a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of Fay’s identity formation. It’s easy to grow obsessed with this auspicious novel.”
“Thomas' Idlewild is a crackling, blindingly funny, thrilling and poignant romp through queer youth, the early 2000s, 9/11 NYC, Quaker schools, and the maddening, heartrending, singular friendship between Fay and Nell that I will never forget. Thomas is a voice and mind we've been waiting for."—Sarah Thankam Mathews, author of All This Could Be Different
"So smart, so funny, so outrageous, so scary, so bittersweet, and so heartbreaking, James Frankie Thomas’s Idlewild is a huge, brilliant, coming of age omnibus of adolescent mischief, uproar, and friendship, of exquisite comedy and profound courtesy, of love and resentment, secret crushes and true confessions, all of it suffused with the most knowing and big-hearted insights of adult retrospect. Thomas’s writing is utterly artful, the story utterly kinetic and headlong and beautiful—the whole thing kept me mesmerized from the first page to the last. Bravo."—Paul Harding, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Tinkers
“James Frankie Thomas’ black humor debut novel Idlewild follows an intense friendship between queer and trans teens at an artsy Manhattan prep school in a post-9/11 world, for a poignant look at embodiment, betrayal, regret, and hope.”
“A fever dream of a book, full of longing, regret and hormones. It’s reminiscent of such coming-of-age classics as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides yet also wholly original . . . Set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 nation on the verge of war, Idlewildis about the consequences of choices, big and small.”—Bookpage
“Idlewild is the funniest, most moving novel I’ve read in years, a story of youth and love in all its precocious glory. James Frankie Thomas channels a pair of brilliant, searching friends with precision (complete with research paper citations and fanfic), and invites the reader into its big, hidden heart.”—Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins and The Cold Millions
"Idlewild toes the delicate line between darkly biting and empathetic. It's loud and funny and raucous, and yet, it sneaks up on you. With truths about living in the 2000s, the searing pain of looking back, and the absolute madness of having a best friend, James nails the heartbreak of being a theater kid and the humiliation of growing up."—Kiley Reid, author of Such a Fun Age
"A thoughtful, bittersweet rumination on queer adolescence in post-9/11 America. At once caustically irreverent and deadly serious as only teenagers can be, Idlewild is a confident, heartfelt debut."—Gretchen Felker-Martin, author of Manhunt
“Idlewild is set through the eyes of two best friends from the birth through the death of their relationship, through 9/11 and school musicals and shared queer obsessions. It brilliantly captures the specific quirks of New York City private school teenhood, but also what it's like to be a teen at all--horny, confident, confused, and desperately trying to create yourself. Thomas's writing sparkles, and it's full of such tension and kindness and humor that it's impossible to turn away.”—Jaya Saxena, culture critic and author of Crystal Clear
“A very queer and very fresh take on teen friendship . . . exquisite and revolutionary. You won’t want to miss this.”
—Debutiful, Most Anticipated Debut Books of 2023