Once and for All

Is it really better to have loved and lost?

Louna spends her summers helping brides plan their perfect day and handling all kinds of crises: missing brides, scene-stealing bridesmaids and controlling grooms. Not surprising then that she’s deeply cynical about happy-ever-afters, especially since her own first love ended in tragedy.

When handsome girl magnet Ambrose enters her life, Louna won’t take him seriously. But Ambrose hates not getting what he wants and Louna is the girl he’s been waiting for.

Maybe it’s not too late for a happy ending after all?

Processed with VSCO with m3 preset

I am a huge Sarah Dessen fan. I must have been around 15 or 16 when I read my first Sarah book (I just turned 25. Whaaat?!), it was Just Listen and I fell hard for it. It’s a book about trauma, speaking up and figuring out how to express your emotions – cause if you don’t, they’ll find their own way out regardless – and I identified incredibly strongly with it for reasons I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint until after graduating school, then university and starting my (semi) adulthood (feeling feelings is not a strong point of mine. I would much rather watch excessively violent shows on Netflix than, say, deal with my daddy issues). All of which is to say I LOVE Sarah, I have read all of her books and will continue to do so for as long as she’s writing them. But, fact is, when an author has written 11-some novels, chances are not all of them are going to be 100% for you. I ADORE Just Listen, Saint Anything, This Lullaby and Keeping the Moon, for example, but I have much more lukewarm feelings toward Lock and Key and Someone Like You.

The drawn out point I am ever-so-slowly getting to is that, while the majority of her books are hits, her latest, Once and for All, was a miss – for me, anyways.

Once and for All is a book about weddings and the notion of ‘forever’ love, an idea all of the characters in this novel are somehow sceptical of. It being a Sarah Dessen novel, romance takes centre stage and by the end, all of the now former sceptics are nicely coupled off and at the beginning of their happily ever afters. While I usually enjoy this kind of thing – I am myself a highly sceptical individual who definitely day dreams of being persuaded of the error of my ways – something about the approach in this one felt a little… off, for reasons I will get more into later.

There were aspects of the book I liked a lot – primarily Ambrose, obviously. The funny, sweet talker with commitment issues is totally my type (I mean who isn’t into that, really?). Every moment between Ambrose and Louna went straight to my squishy heart. They reminded me of Rory and Tristan in Gilmore Girls season 1. Ambrose had the kind of swagger typical of a boy in his mid-twenties rather than his teens and a love of dogs that would have endeared him to me immediately even if the rest of his personality weren’t so appealing.

I really liked Louna’s family – also unsurprising as Dessen writes family with empathy and complexity 100% of the time. Louna was raised by a single mum and major straight male-sceptic in the particular way single mothers tend to be (anyone raised by such a woman will know exactly what I’m talking about), and so even as a teen who had never been in love, Louna was going into the romantic arena with a good deal of (largely unearned) scepticism.

As I was definitely the kid who, at the start of secondary school when my classmates started dating would say things like, “psh, that won’t last” as if I were Joan Collins-type old broad smoking in the corner of the bar, and not actually a 13-year-old who believed Janis Ian style black eyeliner was a strong look and one I would likely wear for the rest of my days – this amused me greatly.

But despite all this, Once and for All left me cold. Generally speaking, I’m a huge fan of a happy ending, but I also believe that what that is looks different for everybody. In Once and for All that looked like being in a relationship – for every single character. And that would be fine, were it not for the fact that at the beginning of the book, Louna’s mother and her business partner William, were both very happy single. They remain happy in that state until the last quarter of the book, when they suddenly meet people (her, some kind of self-help mogul and him, a cute guy from the deli) and realise that they’re supposed single happiness was a farce, and that being one of a romantically entangled pair is really only the way to go.

And… I don’t think that’s true. The idea this book presented, that long term monogamy is *the* route to happiness, made me uncomfortable. And yes, I know this is the premise of most contemporary YA, and yes, I know it ordinarily doesn’t bother me, but to have every major character in the book come to conclusion that single = unhappy… did not resonate with me. At all. This may have been partly owing to the fact the resolution of the book felt quite rushed anyway, but more broadly it’s that, to me at least, the idea that everyone finds happiness in the same way is incredibly reductive. What I would have really liked from this novel is a much more nuanced portrayal of happiness and the pursuit of it, and unfortunately on this occasion I didn’t get that.

Even though this book was not, ultimately, for me, I still can’t wait to read whatever Sarah does next. Though not everything she writes is completely to my taste, I am a fangirl forever, as far as her writing is concerned.

Advertisements

The Answers

Trigger warning: sexual assault.

Mary is out of options. Estranged from her family, plagued by debt and beset by phantom pain, she signs up for ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ – a mysterious project masterminded by a famous Hollywood actor who, frustrated by romantic and creative failure, hires a collection of women to fulfil the different roles of a relationship.

Mary is to play the Emotional Girlfriend, alongside a Maternal Girlfriend, a Mundanity Girlfriend, an Anger Girlfriend and, of course, an Intimacy Team. Each woman has her debts and her difficulties, her past loves and her secrets. As Mary and the actor are drawn ever closer together, the nature of the experiment changes, and the Girlfriend’s find themselves exposed to new perils, foremost among them love.

Here, then, is a novel of die-hard faith and fleeting love; of questions which plumb the depths of the human heart, and answers that will leave you reeling.

Processed with VSCO with m3 preset

“Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to be another person – anyone else – for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.”

The Answers by Catherine Lacey presents an unsettling premise as a means of exploring themes of identity, feminism and romantic relationships in one of my favourite reads of the year.

Mary has run out of options. Beset with a mysterious and debilitating illness no doctor could name or solve (“Whole hospitals shrugged.), on the recommendation of her hippy friend, Chandra, she turns to an alternative therapy: PAKing. PAKing (Pnuema Adaptive Kinesthesia) seems to work – though Mary suspects the placebo effect – the relief it brings her leaves her with no choice but to proceed with the cripplingly expensive sessions. In order to pay for her treatments, she signs up for a strange-sounding side hustle, The Girlfriend Experiment (or the GX, as it comes to be known) with a famous actor she has never heard of, Kurt Sky.

There is so much to love about The Answers: Lacey’s poetic yet sharp writing, the personification of the emotional labour of women with Emotional Girlfriend and Maternal Girlfriend as actual paid jobs, the irony of the title – The Questions would be a much more accurate name – and the off-putting, almost dystopic premise of the GX.

Early on, Mary states that “Love is a compromise for only getting to be one person”, a thought that forms a kind of mission statement for a book consumed with the reasons relationships fail. It is a study of variously damaged people looking to escape themselves  – Mary is unable to make meaningful connections with others because of the complete breakdown of her relationship with her parents whose religion dictates they must live ‘off the grid’; Ashley, another participant in the GX is angry at a world that will only define her by her beauty; Kurt is unable to move past the loss of his mother in his childhood and is consumed by his own toxic masculinity; Matheson, Kurt’s assistant, is stuck serving a man who will never love him back; Chandra is (probably) in a cult.

The GX is also more than it seems. Envisioned initially as the answer to Kurt’s, and perhaps, everybody’s, problems – “truly innovative technological solutions to emotional and psychological problems that were previously thought to be just part of the human condition” – it is derailed by a team of scientists with ulterior motives. Less interested in cracking the key to relationships, the scientists instead want to decode feelings, specifically how to not feel them, or to only feel those things that can be considered “useful”. Girls in the GX are manipulated into feeling love, anger, rejection – even Kurt is programmed to experience moments of emotional intimacy with the women he did not consent to.

Even as the plot veers into the bizarre, Lacey’s intense engagement with her subject matter leads to a work that is painfully human. It was impossible not to see your own feelings reflected in the novel – haven’t we all at some point wished to turn an emotion off? – your own questions, insecurities and feelings of isolation in a world increasingly geared toward leaving us separated from our own, and each other’s, truths.

It was funny to read a novel called The Answers that was so utterly devoid of them. But that, Lacey makes clear, is the point.

Turtles All the Way Down

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

I am a huge John Green fan. I started watching Vlog Brothers, the Youtube channel he has with his brother, Hank, a little before Paper Towns came out (9 years ago. NINE YEARS AGO. Oh my god. I need to go recover from that realisation…), and at first I didn’t even realise he was a writer. Then Paper Towns blew my mind – I had the part where Radar tells Quentin that he has to stop expecting everybody in his life to behave as Quentin himself would tacked to my bedroom door throughout the rest of high school. I went to see John and Hank on book tour when they stopped in Swindon, of all places, to promote TFIOS. I have a Pizza John shirt. He is one of a very limited number of men whose opinions I have any interest in.

I’m a fan.

So it kind of figures that Turtles All the Way Down would be my kind of thing.

And oh, it was. Turtles All the Way Down is a stunning achievement. It’s a deeply introspective novel about living with a mental health problem that avoids all of the tropes and ‘fixes’ that so often plague stories on the subject. Aza struggles with OCD, which Green has himself, so that helps with the representation.

While the story did have what I have seen referred to as trademark John Green whimsy – his characters are super smart and definitely manipulate scientific fact to create metaphors about their lives (this time they are very into space) – it felt like a departure from his previous work. In Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska and TFIOS in particular the story is very much a vehicle for an idea, whereas Turtles All the Way Down is a deep exploration of Aza’s mental health, with her mental state functioning as the primary driver in the story.

While most stories about mental health incite some conversation about romanticising unhealthy behaviour – To the Bone, that Lily Collins movie about Anorexia springs to mind – there is nothing romantic about Aza’s situation – and not just because her OCD interferes with her love life. That’s not to say that the novel is hopeless, but it is engaged with the particular struggles of Aza’s life that at times make for hard reading – for example, Aza is plagued by the thought of getting an infection, and this thought that she can’t shake leads her to start drinking her hand sanitiser. She understands rationally that drinking pure alcohol is poisonous, and will seriously harm her body in the long run, but she can’t overcome the part of her brain telling her that drinking the hand sanitiser is the only way she will survive. The compassion and skill with which John Green navigates these especially difficult scenes of the novel means that as a reader you’re falling down the spiral of Aza’s anxiety with her even as you stand on the outside desperate to help pull her out.

One of the aspects of the novel that felt most important to me was the new challenges Aza faced when trying to have a romantic relationship, in particular the physical side of things. Physical relationships are really difficult for some people for a whole variety of different reasons from mental health issues to trauma to all of the nuances in between and don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I’ve seen that represented before. Sex positivity is absolutely wonderful, but it’s contributed to the taboo surrounding having any kind of sexual issues – which a lot of people have. Though Aza does not have sex in this book, she does find that her intrusive thoughts do mean that she can’t be physical with her boyfriend most of the time as making out with him makes her to anxious. Yet she and her boyfriend still have a very positive relationship in which he is understanding, kind, and never shames Aza or tries to push her into doing more than she is comfortable with. And he’s also still like, crazy into her. It’s such a positive view on a situation in which a lot of people feel a ton of shame, and I am so so happy that it exists.

Turtles All the Way Down is a difficult, painful and deeply compassionate novel that tears to shreds the romanticisation of mental health problems. In his typical style, John Green navigates Aza’s internal life in a way that never feels anything but emotionally true. It is a stunning novel about friendship, loss and surviving your own unique challenges, whether that be your OCD or your millionaire father leaving his entire fortune to a reptile.

It was totally worth the wait.