I think that sometimes you’re just not compatible with a book. I think that, sometimes, even if the writing is good and by someone you have previously liked, it is possible to read something and feel utterly grossed out. I have this experience whenever someone who seems nice reveals they actually voted Conservative.
Reading Isla and the Happily Ever After was kind of like finding out about a friendly acquaintance’s right-wing proclivities. I try to rationalise that this shouldn’t affect our relationship, but it kind of does anyway.
Isla and the Happily Ever After spans the beginnings of Isla’s relationship with Josh, a boy she has had a crush on for three years. It takes place in the familiar grounds of Stephanie Perkins’ Paris School for Loaded Americans. Shortly after the beginning of their relationship, Isla and Josh have to figure out how to proceed after being forcibly separated by circumstance.
I didn’t dislike everything about this book. Initially I liked Isla. I liked that she was shy and insecure, but had this quiet confidence in herself, her friendships. Her sex life. She seemed acutely aware of the difference between the way she was viewed by her peers and the way that she saw herself. Who hasn’t experienced that? Particularly when you’re young, people have a habit of telling you what you are, which for some of us doesn’t quite fit. It’s uncomfortable. Isla got that, and I appreciated it.
I also tried to appreciate Kurt. It’s really rare to see characters in YA (in general!) with disabilities. I know this because my brother has high functioning autism and a while ago in a bookshop he asked the guy at the counter if he sold any books about people like him. Spoiler alert: he did not (although to be fair, I do accept that most people don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of autistic characters in literature. At least not one that extends beyond The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). So when I picked up on what she was doing with Kurt with the hand flapping and the blunt reasoning, I was initially kind of impressed.
Because not long after Josh’s entrance into the book, Kurt started to feel like kind of a placeholder. There were long sections of the book where he dropped out of the narrative altogether. I don’t necessarily feel that using minorities as incidentals in stories is helpful. It isn’t telling a new story so much as reinforcing a boring, outdated old one: you are easy to ignore.
Yeah. Kurt’s storyline pretty much sucked for me.
His absence for the majority of the book mostly had to do with Isla’s stunning self-absorption. Throughout, Isla never showed interest in anything outside of her own drama. There’s this one scene where she’s home for thanksgiving and seeing her older sister, Gen for the first time since the summer, and Isla doesn’t even ask how she’s been. When Gen shares that she has just broken up with her girlfriend, Isla barely even acknowledges her. While she’s off with Josh, Kurt makes other friends and Isla says herself that she hadn’t even noticed the additions to his life. She says this with no acknowledgement of the fact that this is entirely down to her own totally self involved behaviour.
Isla complains several times as well throughout that she doesn’t have any friends, to which I could only think no wonder. Making friends requires showing interest in other people, something Isla fails at. Epically.
I kept finding myself wanting more from Isla. I wanted her to want something in life other than Josh. I wanted a sense of her desire to go to Dartmouth (a college near where Josh was planning on going, and not her original plan) even when Josh wasn’t in the picture, but I never did. Does anyone else remember when Jessica Darling first went to Columbia? I guess I wanted to see some of that enthusiasm for the future in Isla. Enthusiasm that wasn’t just about Josh. I’m all about a bit of independence, and I didn’t like the way that, by the end, Isla’s identity and future was entirely wrapped around Josh. At eighteen years old it doesn’t seem healthy.
Speaking of too young – Anna and St Clair getting engaged. I’m not even going to touch that because the whole thing was too gross.
I know that a lot of people loved this book. But I could not connect with Isla at all. It occurred to me that perhaps I’m just a little too old? I have found, and I know a lot of my friends share this experience, that the older I get the less tolerance I have for people who thrive off of their own drama.
I wanted a conclusion where Isla addressed her own shitty behaviour, but that never happened. Reading the book was frustrating experience for me.