Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Romantic clichés

It's not easy to write a good romance novel.

If there is any genre which tends to drift into cliche, not to mention emotionally unhealthy fantasy territory, it's the romance.  Blame it on fairy tales and Walt Disney films . . . which inspire most of our earliest ideas about romantic love, and then give us such limited plot points and potential outcomes to imagine.  Either you are a heroine that needs to be saved (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel), or more rarely, a heroine who wants to do the saving (Ariel, Beauty).  Either way, the story ends with a "happily ever after" and is squarely aimed at a female reader.

Hats off, then, to Daniel Handler -- who did his level best to subvert romantic clichés
in his YA novel Why We Broke Up.  Never mind the happy ending; Handler dispenses with that notion from the very title of the book.  He starts with the aftermath of a break-up of a couple of unlikely love birds, and then works his way back to the less than auspicious beginning of their relationship. 

Min is the cinema-obsessed girl with the simpatico best boy friend who seems like he might be gay, but isn't.  (Instead, he is secretly in love with her.  Yes, a cliché . . . but a knowing one.)  They are the "arty" not-quite-cool kids in school, several rungs below the athlete-and cheerleader apotheosis in the social hierarchy.  When Al (best friend) has a Bitter Sixteen birthday party, basketball god Ed Slaterton and his sidekicks crash it with all the noblesse oblige of the truly popular.  Ed flirts with Min, Min succumbs to the flattery of his attention, and next thing we know she is dragging him to an art-house film.  This is the opposites-attract kind of romance; no one really expects it to work out, and no one is really surprised when it doesn't.  Ed seems to have potential to be more than he appears to be, and Min starts falling for this possibility.  But then he disappoints; he turns out to be exactly the "player" Min suspected him to be all along; and we are all unaccountably disappointed.

Typically, in a romance, there are a variety of conflicts and misunderstandings which keep the happy couple unhappy . . . sometimes until the very tip-end of the denouement.  But the reader knows, because this is a convention, that everything will work out in the end.  So Daniel Handler writes an un-romance, an anti-romance, but with plenty of fair warning to the reader.   Read it for Daniel's clever writing and Kalman's appealing illustrations . . . but don't read it for the emotional satisfaction of a happy ending.  

Another terrific YA writer who plays around with romantic cliches is Stephanie Perkins.  In her novel Lola and the Boy Next Door, the second in a loosely connected trilogy, Perkins gives a big wink to a trite romantic convention:  that your true love might just be the boy you've known all your life.

At the beginning of the story, our heroine Lola is in love with her first proper boyfriend, who just happens to be quite a bit more experienced than Lola (in every sense of the word).  Her two Dads, (the story is set in bohemian San Francisco), don't like Max very much, but they do invite him to Sunday brunch every week -- if only to grill him.  Everything is pretty groovy . . . until, enter stage left . . . Lola's childhood crush moves back into the house next door.  Although there is some historical heartbreak and misunderstanding to clear up, it is pretty clear that Lola is going to have to make a tough choice.  Both Max (dangerous and exciting) and Cricket (nerdy but adorable) are recognizable types, but they are too well-drawn to be described as cliches.  Yes, Perkins sets up a classic love triangle, but the originality and charm is definitely in the detail.  Cricket Bell may not be the most obvious Prince Charming, but he is one of the most appealing romantic heroes I've ever encountered in a YA romance, and my 17 year-old daughter definitely concurred in this opinion.

If you are looking for the emotional satisfaction of a happy ending, do give this wonderful novel -- and indeed, the entire series -- a read.  Neither the heroes nor the heroines are passive love objects, and they all experience realistic learning curves before getting to experience "true love". 

For other romances, anti-romances -- and a few books about complicated relationships -- see TRAC's February Book List

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

I Was Here

Any passionate reader will agree that stories can provide a specific kind of comfort and solace.  Most readers will also admit to identifying with a protagonist's struggle -- maybe not always, and not all struggles -- but certainly a majority of us have inserted ourselves into a book on occasion.  The idea of "bibliotherapy" is slightly more complicated, though.  It is one thing to just stumble upon the right book at the right time, but it is quite another for an educator or parent to "prescribe" a specific problem novel to an adolescent struggling with that selfsame problem.  It can feel too intrusive, almost an invasion of privacy.  There is also the very human tendency to think that our own problems are unique, and cannot or should not be reduced to the universality of fiction.

I have found some success in approaching the dilemma of book recommendations in a more sidelong manner.  A young friend of mine, age 20, suffers from depression and borderline personality disorder.  Her multiple suicide attempts have required extended periods of hospitalization.  When she is well enough, reading is a great comfort to her -- and the perfect antidote to empty hours and the lack of intellectual stimulation, not to mention the problem of being "in one's own head" too much.  Last summer she fell in love with a book that I had enthusiastically recommended:  Just One Day, by Gayle Forman.  Although my friend's struggles were not identical to those of Allyson, the protagonist of the book, there was definitely an emotional resonance.  When Allyson experiences an emotionally cataclysmic event, her carefully ordered life falls apart for some time; and then she begins to put it back together again.  The story is about a specific transitional moment -- in this case, the first year of university -- but it deals with a number of transitions common to all adolescents:  separating out from parents, making independent decisions, taking risks, suffering rejection and exploring new territory.

I Was Here is Gayle Forman's fifth novel for the Young Adult audience, and so far all of her work has been aimed at the upper end of this age group.  She writes about adolescents transitioning into adulthood:  going off to college, losing their parents, having sexual experiences and learning how to support themselves, both emotionally and financially.  Forman consistently deals with emotionally tough themes, but never more so than in I Was Here, which deals with adolescent suicide.

The book begins with a suicide letter, sent by email on a time delay from Meg to Cody, her best friend.  Like many survivors of a loved one's suicide, Cody is stricken by guilt.  Why hadn't she seen how unhappy Meg was?  Why hadn't she done something to help?  Cody's search for answers leads her to another troubling possibility:  Did someone actually encourage Meg to kill herself?

Forman withholds critical information to the plot for a long time, and perhaps longer than necessary.  On one hand, this gives the story a mystery/thriller element that some teens may find exciting.  There is also a highly conflicted romance between Cody, and an off/on boyfriend of Meg's who is also suffering guilt in the wake of her death.  On the other hand, as an adult reader I felt some anxiety about how she was treating this highly sensitive material.  In the end, Forman brings the story to a close which feels appropriate for both the characters and the reader.  Even more importantly, her Afterword makes clear how strong the link between depression and suicide is -- and how getting the appropriate help can make the difference, but does not do so in all cases.

Understandably, this is a painful book to read.  Forman sets the novel in an economically depressed area of the Northwest, described by Cody as Shitburg.  Cody has been raised by a single mother, whose parenting style has been largely negligent.  Cody cleans houses for a living because she hasn't got her act together, or saved enough money, to go to college.  As the story progresses, and at times Cody begins to identify uncomfortably with Meg, several voices begin to make the point that being "depressed" and sad/angry/frustrated is not the same as being clinically depressed.  This is an important distinction, and the novel gradually but definitely leads the reader to make it for him or herself.  Having said that, I would feel somewhat uncomfortable "prescribing" this book to anyone who is suffering from clinical depression.  It might well educate those young adult readers who are fortunate enough to not suffer from it, though.