I tend to skip most YA romances. Well, nearly all romances in general, on principle, because I get frustrated and annoyed by romance-novel endings, which are nearly always super-happy and super unrealistic. So I confess: I read the YA book Kissing in America with deep misgiving and ulterior motives. You see, in the novel I am slowly plotting, one of the main characters takes a road trip from Colorado to California. (One day, in the name of research, I will need to take the same drive. Who wants to come?) I read this book, in which two of the characters take a road trip to California (but all the way from New York City) solely as research: how would another author handle the travel?
So I went into the reading with absolutely zero expectations except for the blurb on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert—she loved it—which did, I admit, make me a little bit suspicious. (I get annoyed just thinking about Eat, Pray, Love, because yes, it was a good book and highly successful, but really, how many of us have lives that can afford a year off from reality? Where's the book that might teach us how to rebuild our lives, however they're broken, in, you know, actual life? With mortgages and jobs and car payments and kids? When is that going to be on the NYT Bestseller's list? Rant over.)
Zero expectations? Maybe that's the key to loving a book, despite the Elizabeth-Gilbert misgivings. It tells the story of Eva, whose father (who was a British man) died two years ago. To cope, she takes up reading romance novels. Bodice rippers and westerns and objectified Scotsmen. She likes how romance novels always work out in the end, unlike her life. Things are OK living with just her mom, a professor who's taught Eva all of the tenants of feminism. (Romance novels=not usually included in said tenants.) But she's overprotective to the extreme, especially since the plane crash.
Still, Eva's life is OK. She has a great friend, Annie, and is doing well in school. So well that one of her after-school jobs is working at her high school's tutoring center. That's where she meets popular (but in a quirky, rebellious sort of way) Will Freeman. He asks for help with his college admissions essay, and their friendship grows from there. Friendship, and then a romance, and then Will, whose own life is complicated by his parents' divorce, moves to California.
Eva, convinced that she's found True Love, just like in her romance novels, figures out a way to visit him in California after school ends. This involves her friend Annie entering a contest and, more importantly, convincing her mom (who knows nothing about Will) that she can ride the bus to California on her own (with Annie, of course).
I liked so many things about this book. Not, alas, the cover—when Jake saw me reading it, he said "Mom, that looks like a really dumb book" and I explained that it is about a teenage girl coming to grips with her father's death by traveling across America. That sounds smarter than the cover makes it seem.
I liked the romance novel angle, because it is about Eva exploring just how not like a romance novel real romance is. Eva's relationship with Will is one that started with friendship and built from there, instead of the I-saw-him-and-it-was-instant-love motif (which makes me nuts). It also has a great friendship. So many YA novels have friendships that implode, and while I like that story line, it was refreshing to see a good, strong, real friendship. What I totally did not expect--but did, of course, love, is that many of the chapters are given titles that come from poems. And not just any poems, but those that I think of as Really Good Poems. Works I would have happily taught my high school students. Also, before her dad died, Eva also wrote poems, and read them with him. None of that poetry angle is mentioned in the book copy, I think because it might scare off some readers, but honestly: it is a book with poetry in it, but it isn't a poem-y book. I think if you don't like poetry, you'd still like this book.
The only thing I didn't like was Eva's relationship with her mom. First off, it seems strange that she is a strong, feminist woman who doesn't encourage her daughter to do strong, feminist things. Her near-hysterical overprotectiveness, even with the fact that her husband died in a car crash, felt more like a caricature than a real reaction. Casting the parent as the character who makes the wrong choices and who eventually have to apologize to their teenager is a thing that I hate in YA books. (Unless the wrong choices are really ugly wrong choices, not just usual parent/teenager interactions.) I think most YA authors remember being teenagers but haven't parented them yet, and so they do this thing—the same thing teenagers do—where the parents are the villains in the story, or at least one of the major obstacles to the characters getting what they want. A teenager would totally think it was fine to go cross country on a bus without any adults, but as a parent I can see why Eva's mom wouldn't go for it, even with her extreme reactions.
(Maybe I need to remember that I'm not exactly the intended audience for these books anyway. But still: do all YA authors need to reinforce teenagers' ideas that they are the victim in the parent-child relationship? I want a YA novel wherein a teenager realizes that his/her parents are doing their best.)
(And yes, that is totally because I want my own kids to realize I am doing my best.)
Still, I really, really liked this book and am excited to share it with teen readers at the library.
And my ulterior motive was actually fairly rewarding. I figured out that the main character in my novel needs to have a traveling companion. But she won't be taking the bus, I'm pretty sure!