Far too many reviewers (and others) malign the romance novel, but really, when you get down to it, love is one of the few things that is shared by pretty much every member of the human race. First love, lost love, mad love and bad love, we have all been there at one time or another. When you think of all those songs written about love that we recall with perfect clarity on one hand and dismiss as silly on the other you begin to understand just how universally confusing the topic can be. Call me a fool but I bet if we got all the leaders of the world together in a room and told them to talk about their first brush with teenage love, you would find a lot more heads nodding in agreement than you might expect.
Peace eludes us, but love—one way or another—love really is everywhere.
I set out to chart the highs and lows of teenage romance this month, looking at several titles that celebrate all that is sweet and shattering about those moments of young love. As I read each book I found myself more than once in the actions of the characters; in the desperate falling and wistful longing that they each experience. In my book, summer reading doesn't get much better than this and I hope teens everywhere can find at least one of these novels that will appeal purely and completely to them.
Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler's Dream Factory is an absolute perfection of a romance/coming-of-age novel. It is set in the best place ever: Disney World during a character actor strike. With all the actors walking the picket line (my favorite sign is Cinderella's: "Mickey Can Kiss My Glass [Slipper]"), a smart and funny group of replacements are struggling to take their places and earn some quick cash. There are personalities aplenty here (I could not resist "Robin Hood") but the main focus is on friends Ella (who has replaced Cinderella) and Luke (who dresses up as Dale). Each of them is dating someone else (in Ella's case the most perfect Disney Prince Charming ever), but they can't resist the pull of friendship—or maybe something more—that prompts repeated late night conversations. In Luke's case it's a no-brainer; he's up front about an attraction to Ella from the beginning. But there is a lot more back story for Ella from the very beginning and although her dates with Charming make sense (in a Magic Kingdom kind of way) she is clearly pining for more. The question is whether or not she will take a chance on Luke and herself, or protect her heart until it's too late.
The romance is good, the conversation and friendship are all good and I've got to tell you—the many one-liners and descriptions about Disney are way, way good. There is the wryly poignant:
This is where it happens. This where the dream factory chugs away day and night, making you want only the things you can buy off a shelf and take home with you.
And then there's the insanely funny as when Luke gets in trouble with a supervisor:
"Okay then, Luke. That's fine. Little Reggie is walking along happy as can be, and then happens upon what scene? Do you see where I'm going with this? He sees Dale—with Chip nowhere around—sprawled on the ground, presumably dead, and as if that weren't enough, our little cartoon friend is decapitated his head beside him." He picks up a paper clip and tosses it into the plastic coffee cup on his desk. "Luke, we could be talking about a lifelong trauma."
Forget about the 100 degree temperatures—that head must stay on!
There are a ton of barbs directed towards the entire idea of Disney but rather than wimp out and wrap it up in some fake name, the authors have done an excellent job of researching the Magic Kingdom's history (which plays into a fun subplot) and bringing up all the good and bad parts of the theme park juggernaut. As someone who grew up just down the road from Disney and spent very nearly her whole life there (I remember the reality, not the novelty, of an E Ticket ride, folks), I saw dozens of straight-on shots in the story. Nothing nasty or cruel, but please—that whole description of the freaked out little kids and creepy, determined mothers at the Princess Breakfast was dead-on. Basically, it pretty much always comes down to just how much Mommy and Daddy have spent to get the little darlings there, to happiest place on earth, and dammit—they better enjoy the hell out of that place and get their money's worth!
Yeah, just a little bit of pressure there.
But through all the Disney moments, Dream Factory never deviates from the alternate chapter story of Ella and Luke. Their story is a great combination of coming-of-age and romance and takes on all sorts of issues that teens face as they grow up and start to make life decisions for themselves. There's parent conflict and couple conflict and more than a few glowing friend moments. This book is just delight from beginning to end and gets my highest recommendation.
Anything But Ordinary is the story of Winifred and Bernie, two oddball loners who become friends in middle school and eventually fall in love. The early part of their friendship is told quickly—just a few pages about Bernie as a new and largely invisible student and Winifred as the "front-row girl, one of those with a pop-up arm." She's a confirmed geek with no friends but a lot of spunk. When their English teacher announces one day that any student can start a club, Winifred jumps on board immediately, announcing a new club a day ("...the Journaling Club, the Renaissance Comedy Club or the Live Poet's Society") but there are never any takers among her classmates. When she shows up one day in a knit cap and announces the "Green Hat Club" her teacher demands to know the social significance. At that point little Winifred completely loses her cool and makes one of those broad statements that everyone knows is true but nobody ever says:
"Social significance, Mrs. Nelson? Social significance?" By that time, Winifred was on the verge of tears and her voice shook dangerously. "Popularity, Mrs. Nelson. That's what clubs are all about. Don't you know that?"
That's the moment when author Valerie Hobbs had me, heart and soul, no matter where Bernie and Winifred's love might go.
From the moment Bernie shows up wearing his own green hat and requests to join her club, everything seems perfect. They are quirky teens but smart as hell, and when did fitting in matter anyplace other than places where the smart and quirky don't want to be anyway? So Bernie and Winifred have fun, learn a lot (top two slots in their class) and make plans for college. Winifred's family has money, so any school is open to her; Bernie has brains and they are determined to get him a scholarship. Life is good, until Bernie's mother gets suddenly sick and dies. And that's when Bernie starts to doubt that anything will ever be good again and Winifred doesn't know how to save him. And then she leaves. And then it all gets very very surprising.
Have no fear though, the relationship is not over! Anything But Ordinary is just not the kind of book that follows any sort of predictable path. Winifred goes to college on the west coast (leaving New Jersey behind) and finds herself surrounded by three roommates of the occasionally eating but always partying variety. They give her a makeover, dub her Wini and convince her to major in fun. And that's okay—that's kind of part of the whole college experience. But when Bernie comes out of his grief-induced stupor and sets off in search of the person he loves most in the world, the girl he finds is not Winifred but Wini and that sets up a lot of pages about figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and how you plan to get there.
Anything But Ordinary has to be one of the more unorthodox and yet still very romantic love stories that I have read in ages. What really impressed me was that Bernie and Winifred held onto the smart and quirky parts of their natures, even while doing any number of foolish or outright silly things. They made more than one colossal mistake but they kept spinning around those singular truths about themselves: that they were best at being who they are and that they really needed to find the best way to be those people and then everything else would fall into place.
It's not an easy thing that Hobbs has done with this novel, but the story is so seamlessly told that she makes it all look easy. I found both of her main characters to be utterly charming and very endearing and the only thing I was left wanting was more.
Fans of Rachel Cohn's titles Gingerbread and Shrimp will be delighted with her new novel, Cupcake. It picks up right where things left off with Cyd in New York with her brother and Shrimp gone to New Zealand in an attempt at parent/son bonding. It might seem odd that a romance should begin with the couple separated by thousands of miles, but Cohn loves these two and she is not going to disappoint the readers who love them as well. Of course nothing is as easy as you expect—is a teenage romance every easy?—but Cyd is so much fun to spend time with that you don't really care how the romance plays out as long as you get to be inside her head while it happens.
The girl is a kick in the pants and all of her fans know it.
So yes, Cyd is in New York but she does not have a clue what to do with herself now that she's there. The family wants her to go to culinary school but even though that seemed like a good idea once, now she just isn't sure that anything is a good idea anymore. (Why can't American kids get that "Gap Year" thing to figure stuff out that the Brits are always talking about?) A lot of Cupcake is about Cyd finding her way—getting a job that works, making friends who matter and seeing her family as people rather than just siblings and parents. There is also some non-Shrimp romance that, while heavy on the extracurricular activity and not necessarily of the "happily ever after" sort, is still very true to how life really is. And then Shrimp makes his [semi] triumphant return to Cyd's life. And that's when the serious nuts-and-bolts relationship really starts to happen.
The best thing about Cyd and Shrimp for me is that they don't play along with any preconceived notions of how a teenage romance should be; they screw up, reconcile, love and leave in the messiest most complicated ways possible. It doesn't help that Shrimp seems destined to be something between a Zen master and surf god while Cyd refuses to accept any category assignment on the large life survey she keeps getting handed by those who want her to get her act together. They aren't slackers and they aren't overachievers. Shrimp and Cyd are just purely and totally individuals like no others. And Cohn nails them in all their determinedly wild and cranky glory. With Cupcake; she makes readers want to root for them, hang out with them and plot and plan the many ways they must work things out. She makes you love them (if you didn't already) as much as they love each other. What more could you want from a romance?
And as for the ending—well, I'm not giving that away, but it works; it is classic for these two and it totally, perfectly works.
Houghton Mifflin recently reissued Hillary Frank's novel Better Than Running at Night and it's a wonderful cautionary read about college and young love. Ellie has just arrived mid-year at the New England College of Art and Design and is on a mission to become an accomplished artist. She favors the tradition of life drawing and is completely absorbed in her goal to learn as much as she possibly can. She is a complicated teen who has recently emerged from a period spent dressed all in black and largely angry at the world. Her favorite painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is "Christ's Descent Into Hell." She sits at the museum copying aspects of it into her sketchbook and thinks that one day, "I'll paint an image of hell so horrifying, people will feel tortured just looking at it."
Lighthearted gal, isn't she?
Okay, Ellie is a little dark. But she is certainly no tortured artist. Mostly she spends her time studying Human Anatomy for Artists and trying to emulate the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. She has a lot she wants to learn and is eager to get down to it. As she attends the necessary "bridge" class for students who arrive mid year, she studies her two fellow classmates and pushes herself to rise above her instructor's enthusiasm and get to the meat of his lessons. Ellie has time only for art, and art is what she wants to do.
And yet. When the book opens she is attending a college masquerade party and dirty dances with a devil. She wanders home with him, learns his name is Nate and quickly, far more quickly than she could imagine, she falls into an intense relationship with the fellow artist. Ellie loses herself to Nate—all of herself, and becomes more and more attracted to his problems and passions. She maintains her interest in her studies (she's not a 1950s school girl looking for a husband), but what Nate does and who he might be doing it with becomes very important in Ellie's world. He tells her he has never been faithful, he introduces her to his longtime girlfriend from back home (they are in an "open relationship"), he shows her the pictures he paints of their classmates in half naked and alluring poses. He makes the poses up, he tells Ellie, he does it partly to humiliate them, but she sees that he studies those girls very closely—too closely. She sees that for all his tender words to her and promises that she is different and new, and unlike any other, his loyalty is first and foremost to himself.
Ellie walks past his window at night and Nate is not alone, but when he wants a shoulder to cry on, he seeks her out. She finds herself wondering just what that pathway to humanness that she draws so carefully could be like with this boy who seems to feel no empathy for her pain. He is a devil, and she begins to appear more and more as his sacrifice. And so Ellie embarks on a great project to draw herself, every inch of herself, and discover in the process perhaps, just who she truly wishes to be.
Better Than Running is a passionate novel about all those things young adults discover in those first months away from home; those first opportunities to answer only to themselves. Frank has an MFA from the New York Academy of Art and makes the setting come alive as only one who has been immersed in the study of art can do. Partly a coming-of-age story, partly a peek inside the mind of an artist and wholly the pain of a wrong love at the wrong time, Better Than Running at Night is an absorbing novel from start to finish. Ellie's dreams will compel readers to reflect upon their own secret desires and how hard they are willing to work to make them come true.
David Levithan's Wide Awake might not seem like a romance at first, but embedded within this complex novel of first-time political awakening is a touching relationship between teenagers Duncan and Jimmy. While the overarching plot is about the near-future election of the first gay Jewish president (sadly enough, I think that is why this novel still qualifies as science fiction), what is really going on here is the evolution of a teen love affair from something good to the real thing. From the start it is clear that the boys want to stay together, but whether or not they can survive the complicated storm of a contested election they both care passionately about is anyone's guess. Throw in the fact that two of their closest friends are having a relationship crisis of their own and you can see that the guys are on a rocky road.
When the book opens the election has taken place and overnight everything has changed for America. Levithan alludes to difficult periods in the previous decades, a depression, a catastrophic war, and national unrest. Everything seems to change because of the election—in a positive manner—but then the governor of Kansas calls for a recount and everyone has to make a decision just where they stand, and what they are willing to do for what they believe in.
Pretty heady stuff for a high school student.
Jimmy is completely and determinedly committed to the cause, but Duncan is not so sure. He hangs in there though, trying to be the guy that Jimmy seems to want him to be—or that he thinks he needs to be in order to keep his boyfriend. There are all kinds of confusing feelings here—thoughts about what you should do to make your parents happy as opposed to making your boyfriend happy—and then there's the whole pressure of standing up for what you believe in. That wondering about if you have what it takes to be the kind of person you always wanted to be is what makes this romance much more complex than most. It brings Wide Awake to a higher level and gives Duncan and Jimmy's struggles a deeper resonance than readers will expect.
Sometimes the defining moment of a romance arrives when you aren't even thinking about it. As Levithan shows so well, loving someone else makes that person part and parcel of every decision you make. That's hard enough to deal with when you are thirty (or 40 or 50), but in high school it is usually impossible. I was pulling for Jimmy and Duncan though; two teenagers who care this much about the presidency deserve to be together; they deserve all the happy endings in the world.
Dream Factory by Brad Barkley & Heather Hepler
Anything But Ordinary by Valerie Hobbs
Farrar Straus & Giroux
Cupcake by Rachel Cohn
Simon & Schuster 2007
Better Than Running at Night by Hillary Frank
Houghton Mifflin 2002
Wide Awake by David Levithan
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