Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life: Review of Always and Forever, Lara Jean

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize that today’s eclipse was a serious thing. I mean, I believed it was happening because I believe in science, unlike some people in our government, but I missed the fact that solar eclipses don’t come around very often and today is a pretty big deal. Don’t worry, I borrowed my husband’s eclipse glasses (which are seriously so unimpressive), caught my glimpse of the moon passing over the sun, and successfully avoided #fomo.

But how did I almost miss this? How did I not realize that #SolarEclipse17 is important and not just some other day in human history? Because I feel like every day of this year has somehow become a huge fucking deal. I have become so caught up in the batshit craziness that is American politics, and I feel like every single day adds a new item to the mile-long list of Crazy Important Things I need to keep track of in my head. These past few weeks in particular have been absolutely ridiculous. I’m not that surprised that I kind of brushed this eclipse aside, because honestly, it was just another extraordinary thing happening in a world that has been wracked by the abnormal and insane recently.

I’m a little tired of thinking about rare eclipses and impending nuclear war and white supremacists marching across the grounds of my alma mater, because it’s just too much. I also believe that the best stories explore what is extraordinary about mundane human life, which, if this were any other year, would be the norm. So I’m here to share my review of a deliciously delightful YA novel which does just that. Jenny Han unfolds the special and completely inimitable time that is high school senior year in her novel titled Always and Forever, Lara Jean.

always-and-forever-lara-jean-9781481430487_hr

This novel is the third installment in a trilogy that includes To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. The three books follow Korean-American Lara Jean Covey and her romantic entanglements growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I highly recommend reading the first two books before diving into this one, because not doing so would be a reading sin, but this book is particularly special and is such a satisfying and realistic finale to a beautiful series.

Boys are Great, But Sisters Are the Best

Lara Jean meets her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky in the first novel of the series, and let me tell you, Han really knows how to create an absolutely charming romantic lead. Peter is handsome, silly slash witty, and complements Lara Jean’s quirkiness with his effortless charisma. Their chemistry has you rooting for them as they navigate the stress of senior year together.

But where Jenny Han really shines is in her ability to root Lara Jean in her sisterhood. Lara Jean’s relationships with her younger sister Kitty and her older sister Margot completely trump her romance with Peter. I loved reading about how these three young women who have completely different personalities work through family life together, whether it involves their dad getting remarried to a neighbor or supporting Lara Jean when she doesn’t get into the University of Virginia. As someone who has two sisters, I rarely read about sibling relationships that are just as complicated and important as romantic relationships, especially in YA literature.

Young Adults Are People Too

As a former teacher and as a proud consumer of YA novels, I hate it when writers or people in general treat young people as if their concerns and their values aren’t fully evolved and thus aren’t that important. I hear more often than not about teenagers and how obsessed they are with their phones and social media and they’re not ready for the real world. And it’s so irritating, because it’s as if we’ve all forgotten what it really means to be young.

Jenny Han hasn’t forgotten. In fact, she cherishes her characters and their youth. She gives them authentic teenage voices, curse words and all, instead of giving them John Green-esque monologues that make them sound like aged professors. Han also revels in the sparkly excitement of senior year. From fun class trips to New York to dancing at prom, Lara Jean’s enthusiasm about it all shines on the page, and it’s because Jenny Han knows that teenagers are actual people and are allowed to feel what they’re feeling without judgment.

So What’s Next? A Fear of the Unknown

Jenny Han knows how to create amazing characters and relationships, and her love for them breathes on the page and makes the reader love them too. But the most important thing that she does in this book is expose the fear and anxiety about the future that lurk behind the excitement of senior year. Lara Jean plans on going to UVA with her boyfriend Peter, and she is thrilled about the prospect of being with him and living near home during her college years. But as we all know, the universe doesn’t really care about your plans. She doesn’t get into UVA, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s world is completely turned upside down.

I cannot give Jenny Han enough credit for this plot choice. It’s such an ordinary and real problem that real students go through, but you don’t necessarily encounter it that often in YA literature. Lara Jean’s fear of the unknown has nothing to do with vampires or fighting to the death in the Hunger Games – her fear is not knowing what her life will be like without her boyfriend and her family nearby because she didn’t get into her first choice school. And reading about that and her anxieties about making sure she’s making the right choice for herself is extraordinary because it’s not extraordinary. It’s a situation that thousands of kids across the country go through every year. And I love that Han makes that the “obstacle” of this novel, because it’s a real one, and it’s a surmountable one.

My Verdict:

 Always and Forever, Lara Jean wins on so many levels. You’ll fall in love with Lara Jean, her cute boyfriend and her even more awesome sisters. You’ll remember that being young isn’t so bad. And you’ll realize that there doesn’t have to be an eclipse or a tweetstorm from the leader of your country in order to make your day extraordinary. Sometimes you’ll find the extraordinary in the everyday lives of real people, with their very relatable problems.

 

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

Advertisements

High School Just Really Sucks: Review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

It is a truth universally acknowledged that attending high school in the United States just completely blows. The best, and by best I mean the least harsh, description I’ve heard of someone’s high school experience is “meh, it wasn’t too bad, but I wouldn’t go back for anything.” If THAT is the top of the totem pole, then I think I’m right in saying that no one truly leaves high school completely unscathed. It is a damaging, annoying time to be alive. Everyone cares too much about completely everything, even about the smallest things that shouldn’t matter. We haven’t learned yet to let things go, or to not give so many fucks.

At that ripe young age, right before you’re able to spread your wings and figure out who you really are and what you want, everything matters. What you wear, the grades you get, the friends you have – it ALL matters SO MUCH. Kids walk around, stuck in their heads, so aware of how they’re being seen, and they’re bouncing off their classmates who are all doing the exact same thing. High school is a swirling vortex of hormones and other people’s opinions, and you’re lucky if you get out with a “meh, it wasn’t too bad.”

Cuban-American author Meg Medina transports you back to this unforgettable time in Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Her lead character Piddy Sanchez undoubtedly does not escape the horrors of her high school experience with a “meh.” Piddy, short for Piedad, finds herself at a new school and immediately the object of  an unknown girl’s (Yaqui Delgado) attention. A classmate tells Piddy on page 1 that Yaqui most likely doesn’t like that Piddy “shakes her ass” so much (a side effect of too much dancing with her mom’s BFF Lila), and that Yaqui, well, wants to kick her ass.

Yaqui book cover

 

What follows this revelation is Piddy’s anxiety-ridden journey, a deft navigation through the horrors of modern-day bullying, the power of female friendships, and Medina’s insight into a colorful, vocal chorus of beautifully individual voices.

A World of Fear

Medina does something incredibly crucial in her portrayal of Piddy’s harassment in this story – she focuses on Piddy’s atmospheric fear rather than on the physical violence she endures. Piddy’s fear of Yaqui and what she or her friends might do permeates every part of her life, and lurks behind every conversation or thought that she has. It doesn’t stop when she leaves school and gets home, or when she decides to skip school to avoid Yaqui – the terror hangs around her, constantly.

It’s really easy to tell kids that are being bullied to “move on” or “ignore it,” but many kids don’t have the emotional equipment yet to ignore bullying AND deal with their anxiety about it. Meg Medina reminds you that bullying is not an isolated thing in a young person’s life – it is systemic and is a physical weight that victims carry with them everywhere. Piddy is no exception, and while the violence she goes though is horrific and follows her everywhere (especially when her tormentor uploads a video to YouTube), her emotional fear hits you the hardest. This depiction of anxiety as normal is so important, especially for younger readers who might be dealing with something similar to Piddy’s struggle.

Thank God for Salón Corazón

While Piddy’s journey with being bullied is the crux of this story, Medina does a wonderful job of juxtaposing that storyline with Piddy’s relationships outside of school. You get to experience Piddy’s evolving friendship with Mitzi, her best friend who now attends school on Long Island and is living a very different life. There is of course a cute love interest by the name of Joey, who plays a small but important role in the story. But for me, the shining jewel of these relationships comes in the form of Piddy’s mother Clara, Lila, and the cast of Latina women that frequent Salón Corazón.

Real Voices Having Real Conversations

My favorite thing about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is Medina’s command of how her characters sound. This novel is bursting with unique and complex women, and none of these characters sound alike. You can hear the lives the women at the hair salon have lived in their conversations. Lila is as vivacious as Clara is restrained, and the way they speak reminds you that they are real women who exist in our world. Their shared community exists in complete contrast to the clique-filled, competitive halls of Piddy’s school. For me, this other world that Piddy inhabits is a crystal ball that shows how much better and more interesting life becomes after you’re out of high school, and it shows the unparalleled power of female friendships.

My Verdict:

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass does what all YA novels should do. It highlights the pervasive struggle of being bullied, which is something that all young people have either witnessed or experienced for themselves, and it reminds them that their anxiety and emotional well-being are just as crucial as their physical bodies. But this book also reminds older readers, like me, of what it means to be young, and how happy we should all be that we are no longer in high school.

 

Cover photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

The Most Unhelpful Book Review You’ll Ever Read: A Review of What Lies Between Us

Have you ever read a book that you knew would completely fuck you up? Like, you’ve gone in knowing that the journey through the pages would be worth it, but your soul might not make it through to the final destination? Friends, I’ve read two of those books in recent times. One was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it on my honeymoon, and let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on marital bliss like a dystopian horror story that strips women down to their biological functions and wipes away their humanity. Probably not the best idea of mine, in hindsight, considering the very real implications of a Gilead-like future for the U.S., but oh well. A girl’s gotta read.

And the other book that destroyed me for a good few days? What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer who also wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I inhaled this gloriously horrific and anxiety-inducing novel in all of three hours, and then spent the next few hours being considerably stressed out. Tainted visions of my future children and my relationship with my husband all swirled around me in a storm of blue, as I lay in bed, petrified, at 2 a.m. Again, another poor life choice that I will hopefully not be repeating any time soon.

munaweera

Let me tell you what this extraordinary novel is about before I turn you off of reading in general. Munaweera’s tale is a tragedy that begins in her protagonist’s white prison cell. The woman tells us that she’s been imprisoned for committing the most monstrous of crimes, and that this story is her attempt to reveal why she did what she did. Instead of outlining a confession, the unnamed protagonist unravels her life’s story in a series of memories and images, beginning as a young girl in Sri Lanka to an immigrant’s journey in America. Love, loss, and grief ensue in the pages that follow.

If that summary was too vague, I’m sorry, but as a reader who believes deeply in the experience of reading and unspooling the nuances of a story for herself, that’s literally the best, un-spoilerly paragraph about this novel that I can give you. But, what I can attempt to do is tell you why this novel had such a huge impact on me, and why I’m still feeling that impact a week later.

Munaweera unwraps the experience of being a young, non-white immigrant in this country with exquisite precision. Upon entering the hallowed hallways of school in the 1980’s, our nameless protagonist lives on the outskirts of American life, and feels more like an exotic animal at the zoo that no boy wants to date. When she grows into adulthood, and happens upon a great guy who happens to be white, she confesses to feeling a little bit lucky just to be “chosen by one of them.”

As someone who can relate deeply to both of those experiences, I can tell you that for many non-white immigrants or children of immigrants, the fact that you’re non-white and therefore other is an insistent part of your life, even if you’re not fully aware of it. Munaweera captures that slight feeling of ostracism so well, and What Lies Between Us managed to remind me about a lot of the racial and ethnic anxieties I endured and still endure to this day.

Another incredible thing about this novel is that even if you’re not an immigrant or a child of one, you’re still able to fully empathize with Munaweera’s protagonist because of how she tells the story. Munaweera breaks the story into vivid and palpable images of life, which teem with lust on one page and fear on the next. She roots her story in the experience of being human, and through this, What Lies Between Us becomes the best type of evidence against the wall-loving, divisive voices in our country right now. It reminds us that people are people, no matter where they’re from or how they’ve grown up. All people share the same fears and anxieties, and all people just want to love and be loved in return.

But the most incisive and, for me, gut-wrenching highlight of this book is its discussion of motherhood. What Lies Between Us is, at its core, a story about motherhood, and how being a mother changes and defines a woman’s life. In the first few pages of the novel, when the protagonist begins to tell her story in her cell, Munaweera unleashes an absolutely lethal description of being a mother in the United States. She writes that there is absolutely no way to be a good mother in this country, because to be a good mother, you have to be perfect. For the protagonist, even the smallest of failures or mistakes as a mother will indict you. She continues by reminding the reader that being a mother is essentially giving yourself entirely in the pursuit of a higher, more important end goal. And she lands the final punch by telling you that she is essentially in prison because she refused to do just that.

Like, damn girl, get out of my head! Somehow, Munaweera reached her hand right into my body and pulled out exactly what I fear about motherhood. And the fact that she is able to do that is incredible. The power of this novel is that it reveals the anxieties and implications of motherhood in such a real way. From beginning to end, Munaweera details everything that is glorious AND terrifying about being a mother. And for someone who is a bit tired of hearing that I’ll figure it out and that I don’t need to worry so much, I am so grateful to see my anxieties in print. Munaweera’s words remind me that my feelings, true or not, are valid and acceptable, and that is the hallmark of a really important book.

My verdict:

I have told you very little about what happens plot-wise in this book, but I am telling you that What Lies Between Us is SO worth the read on so many levels. One, you get to glimpse what it means to be a young immigrant in this country. Two, Munaweera immerses you in gorgeous images that burst with humanity. And three, if you have concerns about what it means to be a parent, then What Lies Between Us will assuage your fears by giving them an important voice.

Go read this book, because my review does not do it justice.

 

 

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash