It Looks Like This
by Rafi Mittlefehldt
Reviewed by Kris Milstead
About 160,000 teens skip school every day due to bullying. Nearly 10 percent consider suicide. With those numbers in mind, I delved into It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt.
The book opens after the story has ended, with 15-year-old Mike recalling a sunrise he watched with his friend Sean. This sets the stage for the second chapter, which jumps back to the beginning.
Mike’s family has moved to Virginia from Wisconsin. The father is authoritarian and religious; the mother is equally religious, but quiet and subservient. Dismayed that his son is “soft,” Mike’s father pushes him towards sports to “toughen him up.” A misfit at home and school, Mike tries to appease his father, but has neither the talent nor the passion.
After Mike is paired up with Sean for a project in French class, the two strike up a friendship and the tentative beginnings of a romance. Unfortunately, neither can escape their fathers. Nor can they get away from Victor, a bully who has targeted Mike.
Religion is a significant specter in Mike’s relationships, with several of his friends at school also a part of his church. His father’s mercurial temper is intertwined with his religious convictions. His is the final word in the household, and Mike’s mother is either too afraid or too conditioned to speak up.
It Looks Like This is good, but not great. Much of the blame lies in the overly broad characterization. All the men in church are stern and distant; all the women are meek and submissive. The minister preaches hellfire-and-brimstone. Characters are introduced, only to be dropped.
One particular cliché gives way to a major point-of-view problem that nullifies the whole central premise of the story. Mike’s sexuality, for which he is bullied, is indicated by the fact that he doesn’t like sports and he’s artistic (because, of course). The reader, however, is privy to Mike’s inner thoughts. To all the other characters—the ones who can’t see inside Mike’s head—there’s no reason to think he’s gay other than his disinterest in athletics and appreciation of art. The only two characters in the book who defy stereotype are Mike’s sister, Toby, and Mrs. Pilsner, the mother of one of his friends.
Readers who enjoyed It Looks Like This might also like Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian, or The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, all of which address bullying, adapting to new environments, and first love.
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda specifically deals with cyber-bullying and has a far lighter tone, although it, too, veers into predictability and never fully addresses the consequences of the characters’ actions. It Looks Like This goes slightly further, yet still does not show the events as having any long-term consequences for the perpetrators. Only Mike and Sean suffer from the actions done to them.
Cut Both Ways and The Tragedy Paper take a more serious approach and create more realistic scenarios. Like Mike, The Tragedy Paper’s Tim becomes the target of one individual who seeks him out with malicious intent. Tim also stands out as different and awkward, but his differences are primarily physical, whereas Mike is just quiet.
A singular tragic event, for which the boys blame themselves, shapes both their futures, but Mike has only a minor (albeit direct) role in the tragic event. No particular reason is given for Mike being targeted by Victor other than a subtle implication of self-directed homophobia.
It Looks Like This is enjoyable—eventually. The first half drags and the pacing didn’t pick up until halfway through, just as I was about to give up. In addition, the formatting is distracting. Mettlefehldt does not use quotation marks to indicate dialogue, but rather depends on line breaks and “he said” or “she said.” This is supposed to be because Mike is retelling past events, but that doesn’t make it any easier to figure out whether a character is speaking and it detracts from the story. ★ ★ ★
Kris Milstead is a nerd insomniac. When she is not surfing the Internet or watching Doctor Who, she can probably be found reading and working on her next book review. You can follow her on Twitter at medelle71 or email her at email@example.com.