I’m about to say something that’ll make me sound like a horrible, blasphemous, cynical monster. Ready?
Often, my favorite YA romances aren't the Happily Ever Afters—they're the ones that run their course and end up falling apart.
I’m not talking about tragic love stories, where one of the characters dies or the two lovers are separated by obstacles beyond their control. I’m talking about the stories where two people get together, discover they're not right for each other, and learn things from that failure. The Happily Ever After (or Happily for Now) absolutely has its place—those stories are really satisfying to read, and they give us lots of hope, which I think is important. But it bothers me that nearly every YA book I come across focuses on the beginnings of relationships without ever exploring the more difficult middles or ends, where most of the work takes place. So many people learn about relationships by reading, and I kind of feel like we’re dropping teens at the tops of beautiful, scenic overlooks and then bailing before we tell them how to climb down or get home.
Before I go any further, I want to admit that I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else. Beginnings are incredibly fun to write, and the push-and-pull lead-up to two people getting together can make for excellent dramatic storytelling. But there are lots of situations that happen all the time in real-life relationships but seldom pop up in YA, and I’d love to see more of that stuff on the page, too. Here are some examples:
Falling in love is so easy, and by and large, the beginnings of relationships are overwhelmingly similar. You eye each other from afar. You banter flirtatiously and blush a lot. You’re delighted by every tiny quirk and fascinating detail you discover about the other person, because everything is so new. You stare into each other’s eyes for hours on end and think about how OMG YOU’VE NEVER FELT SO CONNECTED TO ANOTHER PERSON EVER EVER EVERRRR.
And then there comes a point when you’ve heard most of the other person’s stories, and maybe some of those little quirks are starting to become annoying, but you’re still totally in love, and that’s where things start to get interesting. It’s no secret that relationships are tons of work and that love involves plenty of negotiating and compromising. But in YA, it’s rare that we get to see any of that. Amidst all those first kisses and spectacular breakups, I’d love to see some middles. Ask the Passengers by A. S. King and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan explore this admirably.
It shocks me how often YA characters fall for people who actually like them back. The number of all-consuming crushes I’ve had in my life is infinitely larger than the number of people I've dated, and I think everyone I know would say the same. Statistically, most people don’t like each other that way, and the feelings that come from being fixated on someone who doesn’t care about you at all are really interesting. So many highs, so many lows, and nothing is actually even happening. Marisa Calin does a great job describing those feelings in her debut novel, Between You and Me.
Another thing I’ve noticed about YA couples is that the two people usually care about each other the same amount. In reality, I’d venture to say that one person almost always falls harder and faster than the other, and it can be exceptionally awkward. I dated a guy in high school who told me he loved me after two weeks, and I had no idea how to handle it. (I handled it by panicking, saying it back, rescinding it the next day in a letter, and then saying it again two weeks later after he bought me jewelry. Because that’s what you do when you’re fifteen.) My diary entries from that time are a roiling jumble of confusion, and I think it would’ve helped me to know that other people had the same problem.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I saw the movie Her a couple months ago. I thought it was brilliant; I’ve never seen a better allegory for the unbalanced growth and change that happens in a lot of (human-human) relationships. Being in love with another person deepens and broadens just about everyone, but people often don’t deepen/broaden at the same rate. That means some relationships essentially end because they teach one person so much that he/she ends up outgrowing the other; the breakup is a direct result of the relationship being really informative. (Yeah, my head is spinning now, too.) I realize this is incredibly hard to write about—I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge, personally—but I’d love to see someone besides Spike Jonze give it a shot!
I adore Elizabeth Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY, and one of the lines that resonated with me most was, “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend.” When you find someone who clicks with you on a really deep mental/emotional level, it’s easy to confuse it with a crush. You want to be with the other person constantly. You do a lot of worrying about what he/she thinks of you and when you’ll see him/her again. When the other person compliments you, you feel like you have champagne in your veins. He/she makes you feel like your very best self. Sometimes you also want to make out with said person, which makes it a pretty standard crush. But sometimes you don’t—or you’re not sure if you do, because the other person isn’t the gender you usually make out with—and that can make things really confusing. Benjamin Alire Saenz does a nice job of parsing that confusion in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and so does Bill Konigsberg in Openly Straight. (I am also attempting to write a book about this! We’ll see how that goes.)
Remember that time in Buffy when Cordelia and Wesley make eyes at each other for an entire season, and then they finally kiss, and it’s the most awkward, embarrassing, disappointing kiss in the history of the world? Yeah, we’ve all experienced that. And yet, everyone in YA seems to be remarkably good at kissing. I’d love to see some more awkward, fumbling, ultimately unsuccessful physical contact!
Do you know of a great book that explores one or more of these things? Tell me in comments!