I like YA romance and I really like Elizabeth Scott’s writing, so when I saw that her newest book was on sale for the Kindle at Amazon, I bought it, even though I have a paper copy. One of the features of books purchased from Amazon that I kind of enjoy in a voyeuristic kind of way is the highlights that other people have made. I can see what passages catch people’s attention, and if they match what I thought was a key part of the prose.
The thing with Scott’s writing is that it’s all emotional and powerful but every now and again there’s a moment of jaw-dropping description that really, for me anyway, nails my memories of being a teenager. I don’t remember where I first encountered this sentiment but to wit, if your adolescence isn’t miserable, you’re doing it wrong. It sucks to be a teenager in a whole lot of ways, and while that creates a danger for Too Much Pathos in YA fiction, particularly romance, it also creates a reminder of how much it hurt to be a teenage girl sometimes, and how much I’ve learned and grown up since then. (I should bloody hope so. I’m in my 30s for God’s sake).
Among the popular highlights in this book are the ones I would have chosen to highlight too. When the heroine, Sarah, is in the bathroom, a whole other bathroom in the school in a different wing where she’s gone to avoid seeing the people she usually sees, she reads the graffiti on the wall:
Every one was a slut or had a disease or should die and no one ever wrote anything nice on the bathroom walls. Not even anything hopeful. It was like we were all so busy trying to be happy or saying we were happy, but underneath there was nothing but bitterness, the kind that could only be bled out in ink, in unspoken words.
Sarah is the best friend of Brianna, and as the heroine that’s pretty much her first point of definition: she’s Brianna’s best friend. Her own unique traits – that she’s artistic, a pretty skilled designer, very smart and loving and blessed with a truly adorable and functional, if not older, set of parents – are revealed much later because so much of her life is determined by Brianna. Brianna is prettier, more popular with boys, and at times generous and cruel.
Ryan is Brianna’s boyfriend, and Sarah has harbored a secret crush on him for a long time. They were friends, and he asked her to a dance back in 8th grade, but circumstances (and to some degree Brianna) interfered and they never hooked up. Sarah is somewhat shy and unsure of herself, and regularly resides in the shadow of Brianna’s brilliance. So when Brianna ends up with Ryan, Sarah tags along at Brianna’s insistence as a third wheel, happy to be near Ryan because she likes him so much, but not happy to witness them kissing or being together all the time. When Ryan and Sarah kiss, their actions break and change everything about an already-unstable status quo. Watching the aftermath play out forms the bulk of the story.
What Scott does with the characters both irritated and fascinated me. It was clear to me how the book “should” end, and that’s pretty much what happened. I wasn’t reading to see how it turned out, I was reading to see if it turned out as I expected. But the fascinating part is how, by the end, I wasn’t sure if Sarah’s understanding and explanation of events was true – had Brianna stolen Ryan away from her when he showed the slightest bit of interest in Sarah? Was Brianna her friend or not so much? Did Brianna care about her or was she friends with Sarah because Sarah had things Brianna coveted? Which parts of Brianna were real and which were artifice? – and that lack of certainty on my part meant that after I finished the book, I kept guessing as to what had actually happened vs. what was tinged with Sarah’s wavering but growing self-confidence (and by her fear of and desire for change).
There’s a pattern to everyone’s behavior in the book. I know why Brianna, Ryan, and Sarah acted as they did in different scenes, and everyone’s motivating factors are sufficiently revealed. Because the book is told from first person, and because the writing is quick and breathless and in the first person from Sarah’s point of view, I felt much of the same anticipation, desire, fear, and exhilaration that Sarah did. Scott has mad skills at communicating emotion in her dialogue and her prose, and while I wanted Sarah to grow a spine already, I understood how she felt. I totally remember how much someone’s behavior could be excused and forgiven with “But she’s my best friend.”
Intense relationships are the key to this story. Much of the book focuses on what the characters say and do, and what they really mean – clear communication is a mysterious and unheard-of thing in Sarah, Brianna, and Ryan’s world. What troubled me most was that Ryan does some douchey things, and I know why that is – he explains himself admirably. Brianna does some terribly douchey things, and I know what that happened, too, though not because Brianna ever exhibits self-knowledge or a desire to change herself. But Sarah also does douchey things, and beats herself up over them – namely kissing her best friend’s boyfriend, for starters – but I never felt like Sarah truly and definitively stood up for herself against any of the manipulations or actions against her. I wanted her to have more spine to combat future doucheyness, and I wanted her happiness to be a bit more secure, or at least hopeful.
Perhaps if you read it you’ll have a different take on the story. As I said, because the POV is so deeply from Sarah’s perspective, my understanding of the story might be different than someone else’s, since first person often invites the reader to be that”I” as well as the narrating character, and sometimes makes it easier for the reader’s baggage (ahem) to influence their understanding of the story.
I read this book in an evening, and I was still thinking about it when I woke up the next day. I think if you read it, you’ll have a similar experience: breathless, fast reading, with a lot going on under the surface, and a lot of ways to remember how it felt at that age – and how sometimes, you still have that overwhelmed, scary,“why are people doing that?” misunderstanding of other people’s actions. I think because the experience was so familiar to my memories of my teenage self, I wanted to know that Sarah had a happy ending that was solid and real. I wanted more of what happened next, even though the drama was over.