I have mixed feelings about romance in young adult novels. I mean, I love it, but I have mixed feelings. When romance is well-written, it can make your whole world seem brighter. Yet when I read about teenagers finding true love, I can’t always forget that in the real world this experience is the exception, not the rule. I think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer when he confronts his coworkers at the greeting card company: “It’s these cards, and the movies and the pop songs, they’re to blame for all the lies and the heartache, everything. We’re responsible. I’m responsible. I think we do a bad thing here.” His character is speaking from a broken heart, but he makes a compelling point about the romantic expectations created by stories and songs.
I certainly don’t think it’s wrong to tell love stories in young adult novels (or anywhere else). Love is a wonderful part of life, and escapism is a perfectly valid reason to read a book or watch a movie. I just hope that young people can internalize the fact that these stories aren’t reflective of all high school experiences. (Then again, that unreality is probably one of the reasons we enjoy them.) Despite my moments of cynicism, sometimes I come across a YA romance that turns my heart to mush. Anna and the French Kiss and its sequels are the best example of the past year. And if loving Stephanie Perkins is wrong, I don’t want to be right!
I was feeling a little down recently, and some reread therapy seemed like the perfect antidote. I picked up Anna and the French Kiss and then Isla and the Happily Ever After about a month later. In an uncharacteristic decision for me, I skipped Lola and the Boy Next Door, the second book in the series. Each book has a different narrator, and some characters reoccur between books. Lola is an outlier because it takes place in San Francisco, rather than the School of America in Paris. On the other hand, the male lead of Isla is one of Anna’s friends in the first book, so there’s much more crossover between the two. Even though I’m not much of a Francophile, in these books I’m a sucker for the Paris setting.
Since the characters are in boarding school, their lifestyle is closer to college than seniors in high school. It makes them seem older and probably keeps some of my cynicism at bay. More importantly, the interactions and development of relationships feel so genuine. As Rainbow Rowell put it, “Stephanie Perkins’s characters fall in love the way we all want to, in real time and for good.” Anna and the French Kiss shows particularly pleasing relationship growth, with all the awkward moments and miscommunication that are typical of young adult relationships. (And okay, some adult relationships, but let’s not go there.)
Isla and the Happily Ever After warms the cockles of my heart for somewhat different reasons. Isla has always had a crush on Josh, and a painkiller-fueled encounter in the summer before their senior year finally brings them together. Throughout Anna and the French Kiss, Josh is in a tumultuous relationship with a different girl, and Isla deals with insecurities about his ex that are all too real. I find my younger self hardcore identifying with some of their issues, at a level that I can only compare to Cath in Fangirl. Josh is also an aspiring graphic novelist, which is both relevant to the story and an enjoyable nerd factor.
Sometimes I like to put my finger on why I love something. What sets it apart? Even though some reasons are probably intangible, it’s fun to articulate a few.