We live in an enormous sea of expectations. There are the expectations that come from our families, our friends, our partners, institutions, and society as a whole. But probably the heaviest of them all are the expectations we have of ourselves. I think everyone at some point in their lives asks themselves: “Who am I?” “Who do I want to be?” and eventually, “Am I enough?” I think we all get to a point where we think we aren’t enough, that we are at best almost enough. It can be hard and tiring, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s what the story of Always the Almost is all about.
Always the Almost by Edward Underhill is the story of Miles Jacobson, a sixteen-year-old trans boy that has made some big New Year’s resolutions: first, he resolves to get back with his ex; and second, he plans to finally win the Midwest’s largest classical piano competition for young pianists, beating his biggest rival in the field. But everything shifts when he meets Eric, a new boy in school that will change the way Miles sees romantic relationships, art, and most importantly, himself.
This book is without a doubt one of the best examples of trans representation in media, especially trans representation directed toward teenage audiences. Always the Almost succeeds in presenting Miles realistically and as a multi-faceted character. It is not only the story of Miles’ transition, though it is a large part of the book, and it is handled very well. I can’t say I relate to Miles’ experience to the fullest, mainly because I’m an AMAB non-binary person, but there are some things that really ring a bell while reading them. At no point does it feel like Underhill is exploiting Miles’ trans experiences for cheap emotional shots, or romanticizing it in any way. It feels genuine and sincere, and I’m sure a lot of trans teens will find in this book a safe place to explore their identity and the way it affects their lives. The message of this story centers around accepting who you are and not getting all twisted up on the expectations imposed on you. As a trans reader, I’m really glad there is a book with themes like these.
My favorite part of Always the Almost is the way it talks about art, music in particular. We are living through a competition obsessed era where everyone is off to fend for themselves, and this has sadly hidden some of the most beautiful aspects of art and music. Underhill uses Miles’ story to highlight how beautiful music can feel, how it can express emotions, and how we can live through it. There are some conversations between Miles and Stefania, Miles’ new music teacher and my favorite character of the book (I would do anything for her), that really show just how wonderful music can be, and how competitiveness and greed can make it twisted and wrong.
My only complaint about Always the Almost is that at times the teenage drama can get a bit over dramatic, overshadowing some of the more impactful and meaningful parts of the story. There is a conversation between Miles and Stefania at the end of the book about show business and its uglier side that I feel could’ve been a lot stronger if previous chapters weren’t so focused on teenage drama. Don’t get me wrong, this moment (Miles and Stefania’s conversation) is handled pretty well as it is, and the drama is an important part of the story and feels genuine and emotionally powerful, but there are moments it felt like a bit much, and impacted the sincerity that makes this book so strong.
All this being said, I can honestly say that Always the Almost is a wonderful and joyous novel that will keep readers glued to the book until they have finished it. As a trans person, an artist, and a small ball of emotions, I’m really glad this book exists and that it will reach people that really need a story like it. I’m thankful to Edward Underhill and Always the Almost for giving me an exciting, fun, dramatic, and above all, joyful book to warm my heart for the days to come.
Always the Almost by Edward Underhill is out now and available for purchase at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.