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.