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It’s okay for teenagers to suck at relationships. Adults? Not so much.

November 26, 2014

[Contains spoilers.]

Some of the biggest literary turn-offs for me in romance fiction are some of the very things that I think make Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door good reading. I have no desire to throw books across the room when the protags are teenagers trying to navigate relationships for the first time. I still have a strong desire to yell at the characters, though.

“Oh my God, will you idiots just talk to each other?” is a yell that you could make from page to page of Anna. Anna Oliphant’s dad is basically Nicholas Sparks. He’s all surface and no substance. He decides what would really make him look good is to send his daughter to a Parisian boarding school for her senior year of high school, not caring whether this is something his daughter will want. Anna can barely make it through Spanish classes, let alone speak French. She’s finally made it to the first kiss with the guy at her job she likes. She loves her bestie. And now…Paris. A new language. Her mom and little brother are an ocean away.

She immediately meets the short but sexy Etienne St. Clair, with his English accent and his multi-continent parents and a serious girlfriend. But the two of them click immediately, and Anna works hard at being his friend even though she’s attracted to him. St. Clair, as everyone calls him, helps with this not at all as he puts out the most mixed of signals. It’s obvious he’s into Anna, but he still has this girlfriend, who graduated the year before and is elsewhere in the city. St. Clair goes to her; she rarely if ever comes back to the school even though her best friend is still there.

Speaking best friends, Anna’s new bestie Meredith has a thing for St. Clair too, muddying the waters even more. Anna gets wrapped up in Meredith’s tight-knit group of friends and no longer has anyone to talk to her about her feelings and St. Clair’s mixed signals, and she doesn’t want to give her bestie back home the impression she isn’t into the co-worker guy back home, because she really is. But there’s an ease to her friendship with St. Clair that makes him precious to her, and mixed with her attraction, she’s walking a dangerous line between friendship and infatuation. I really enjoy how aware she is of it, how she challenges herself on it, and how when they’re crossing it emotionally but not physically, she is willing to get angry with him for not speaking up. But she still isn’t doing as much talking herself as she could be.

The important thing is that she’s a teenager who’s processing all of these first for the first time. Dating is difficult; being attracted to a friend is doubly difficult because you want the friendship but it’s like your hormones are actively working against you. Unlike another book I read recently, Elizabeth Eulberg’s Better Off Friends, Anna and St. Clair are not playing the “Can Men and Women Be Friends?” game. In Eulberg’s book, the main characters are besties that annoy everyone else with how close they are, especially their bfs and gfs, which end up being timed poorly to keep the leads apart. But of course they finally, after fucking up all the people they try to date, decide to be together, and life is roses. (Which is not to say this isn’t a cute book. It is, but I wish the two hadn’t been into each other, because everyone in the book is like “Just get together already” and they say for so long “But we’re not into each other that way” EVEN WHEN THEY ARE.) In Perkins’s book, St. Clair and Anna ARE good friends, period. And attracted to one another, which is the complication. Since both are trying to respect St. Clair’s relationship with his college-going girlfriend, neither wants to put the words out there, but that also means that when things get intimate (emotionally), both are afraid they’re the only one who feels the way they do.

Yes, ultimately, it’s a book whose problems could be solved with words spoken early on, but the book does a good job of creating realistic teenagers who have reasonable thought processes on why they guard their words. As things get more emotional, the characters get less rational, and that’s realistic too. They are young. They literally don’t know what to do.

And, frankly, we’re all raised in this awful culture that gives us all these mixed messages about how relationships “should” be, so a book like Anna and the French Kiss helps kids figure out how to navigate relationships too.

Lola and the Boy Next Door, on the other hand, is Perkins’s second book, connected to the first by a now college-age San Francisco-based Anna (oddly bland in this book, but oh well), and contains one of my least-favorite things in the world: Damn the Ex. That’s when a lead has to choose between two people, and the one that came before suddenly does awful things to progress the plot. But is that really true for Lola? Is it really that Perkins decided to Damn Lola’s boyfriend Max, or is it that Max was always kind of a butthead and because we saw him through Lola’s eyes, it was harder for us to see?

Lola’s heart was broken by her childhood love Cricket (what a name), but she moved on to much older rock star wannabe Max and the two of them have sex (off-page) and sneak around behind the backs of her gay dads, who are pretty strict because her birth mother, one of her dads’ sister, got pregnant at Lola’s age. Lola lies to Max about her age right off the bat. Max does not lie about his.

The story goes something like this: Cricket moves back to the town, Lola finds out that he didn’t purposely break her heart, and now she’s torn between the two guys. She and Max are cool together, but Max makes her feel childish. Cricket makes her feel happy, and her dads like him, and her bff likes him. Max is the only character who is from a broken home (Lola’s parentage being “healed” by her great dads), and ultimately, he acts like a malicious, childish shithead when he and Lola break up. I wish he didn’t have the background he does–ultimately, it feels problematic, especially when Lola is all “I’m horrible because I’m from horrible parents, except I’m really not that bad, and also not from a broken home”–but it adds to the choices he makes, the paranoia that Lola probably would’ve set off in him even if she hadn’t lied about her age and didn’t wear costumes all the time.

As someone who was Lola’s age dating a guy who was even older than Max, I have to say, Max is pretty well done for a Damn the Ex. Very subtle. He alternately hates and loves that Lola is so young. He teases her with “I Saw Her Standing There” covers and calls her Lolita, but gets a bit freaked when she’s not in her makeup and looks her age. The more she worries about how she’ll be perceived, the more he is suspicious of her, which leads to the big awful break-up. He still handles it poorly, but here’s a dude who was like “She’s seventeen. I can do this thing. I’ll just alternately be polite to and lie to her parents. She’s so COOL.”

She IS pretty cool, by the way, if in an over-the-top way. She’s got her head on right most of the time, and spends all her money on costumes she puts together, alters, or flat-out creates herself. She wants to design costumes for the rest of her life, but first she’s gotta graduate high school, where everyone thinks she’s a freak for treating every day like Halloween. If she weren’t a high schooler who 1) challenges the whole concept of what a costume is and 2) wasn’t the main character, she’d be a walking Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she isn’t. She’s a kid who’s trying to figure out how to become an adult.

One of the things I like about both books is that the kids lie, to themselves and to each other, easily and miserably. We literally do not have the right wiring, as children, to shut off that part of our brain that will pop out with a lie before we can actually think of what we WANT to say. (My husband, a teacher of middle schoolers, loves reading about this kind of research, because it helps him be more sympathetic to his kids.) Casual lying and reactive lying are things that people, especially young people, do. I like that they are not signs of villainy in Perkins’s books.

But we do eventually gain the ability to keep our feet out of mouths (mostly) and we do become adults who need to navigate relationships. I feel like Perkins writes books about learning over time to communicate well, and choosing a healthy relationship as well as making one. She never falls into preachiness. Her characters feel like people. Maybe a little like book people, but they are book people. I can give her that.

So here’s what I learned after being thoroughly entertained by Anna and Lola: Adults, you have no excuse. Get your shit together, teach your kids to get their shit together, and, if they’re into it, maybe read these books and discuss how these characters got their shit together.

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