Smart Teen Romances May 29, 2013Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
As I think back on YA romances that got lots of buzz in the past few years, three titles stand out as sharing some of the same book DNA. While each of these stories are definitely unique and distinct, I think their characters and relationships share some particular qualities that make them standouts in the crowded YA romance field. Each of these books could have been a cliche, but strong characters (especially the girls) and respectful relationships bring their stories to life beyond tired stereotypes.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Anna and the French Kiss is the closest to a conventional romance of these three titles. Set in a boarding school in Paris, the story is narrated by Anna, a new senior who falls in love with the handsome and charming Etienne St. Clair and endures a year of missed signals and awkward conversations along with moments of amazing connection. Always honest with herself about her feelings, Anna struggles to do the right thing, declaring that “I want to be his friend, not another stupid girl holding out for something that will never happen.” Unfortunately when you’re getting used to a new country, new school and new friends, there is plenty of room for things to get lost in translation. St. Clair, while charming, smart and good-looking, also makes bad choices and struggles to take risks, making him (slightly) more believable to the reader. More than anything, I think it is the pairing of Anna’s need to take risks and let St. Clair know of her feelings with her need to take risks and experience a new city and culture that truly bring this book to life.
As plenty of other reviewers have pointed out, this is a cancer book, but not, in the words of its narrator Hazel Grace “…a cancer book, because cancer books suck.” Still, the presence of terminal illness gives the story weight, even if the snark and sarcasm of the protagonists leaven it with humor. Throughout last year’s awards season, several people made the objection that the cancer parts of the book felt manipulative. Perhaps this is true. But without the illness, it is unlikely we would hear so many fierce, philosophical observations from Hazel Grace and Augustus, which would be a pity. It would just be a sappy story with a too-perfect guy who happens to have cancer. From Hazel’s initial advice to Augustus to avoid thinking about oblivion, to the Dutch author Van Houten’s rants about infinity, to the title’s reference to the shortcomings of Shakespeare it is their insights into life and love that set this YA couple apart.
If Anna and the French Kiss is the ‘could have been just a sappy love story’ and The Fault in Our Stars is the ‘could have been just a tear-jerker’ then Eleanor and Park is the ‘could have been just a problem book’. Plenty of its elements–abusive stepparent, school bullies, outsider protagonist–are staples of teen realism. Without ignoring the reality that all these problems contribute to, Rowell manages to focus our attention on the evolution of the relationship between Eleanor and Park. It’s not an easy evolution, with the usual awkwardness of physical boundaries, emotional anxieties and secrets too painful to share. Like Anna and Etienne, they both struggle to do the right thing. Like Hazel Grace and Augustus, both protagonists are confirmed nerds of their era, with the comic series’ X-men and Watchmen, as well as the bands Joy Division and the The Smiths all discussed and appreciated. “You’re not the Han Solo in this relationship you know” Park tells Eleanor at one point. Maybe not, but like all great anti-heroes, these two teenagers battle their unlucky circumstances and come out the stronger for it.