Thursday, 6 February 2014

Contemporary romance in young adult fiction

*Note: This first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Off the Shelf.

Throughout our childhoods we are spoon fed gallant ideas and romanticisms in the form of the healing properties of love’s first kiss, love at first sight, soul mates and the main stay of ‘…and they lived happily ever after.’  Those rose coloured ideals eventually make way for the emotional muddle of crushes, attraction, lust, sexual identity and sex,  also known as the teen years. 

If youth literature properly reflect the teen experience, then contemporary romances are a must.  While they are often maligned, dismissed and mocked, there are many titles on the shelves that would win the most cynical reader over.  Engaging voices, strong perspectives, biting dialogue and a dash (and sometimes a dousing) of romance shine a light on the smile inducing, knocked knees and butterfly bellied stories of teens in love, lust and life.

World building is a term that is used predominately in fantasy and dystopian storytelling but in the case of new kid on the block, Stephanie Perkins, it also applies.  Her debut novel, Anna and the French Kiss, depicts the aforementioned Anna as she negotiates a new environment in the form of a Parisian boarding school.  The boy in which she finds herself enamoured, Etienne, is spoken for.  Perkins chooses to parallel the developing friendship between her two love birds alongside Anna’s blossoming knowledge and appreciation for Paris.  While Etienne is the focus, he shares Anna’s heart alongside a beautifully realised depiction of Paris and its people. 

Perkins’s sophomoric release, Lola and the Boy Next Door, craftily uses San Francisco landscape with all its brazenness, colour and stomach curdling curvature to offset Lola’s unbalanced reality.  Juggling the reappearance of her mother and the childhood crush from next door, Lola loves of colour and drama contrast with the more serious decisions upon her.  Perkins has created an emotionally grounded world filled with a cast of distinct and well rounded characters.

Paulo Coelho wrote that “Love is just a word until someone comes along and gives it meaning.”  Quality contemporary youth literature tackles romance with serious thought, a light touch and emotional resonance.  It starts with a moment of connection and grows into something bigger, better and in some cases badder.  The best of the bunch explore love and lust but also the outward ripple effect on family and friends with specific attention on the inner turmoil of the protagonist/s.

This is evident in John Green’s recent offering, The Fault in Our Stars, where the central concept is that of Hazel and the knowledge that her cancer has won the battle.  Coping with depression and knowledge that the end is nigh, she meets cancer survivor Augustus.  What could quite easily milk tears (and there are plenty of those) explores death and romance through a slightly morbid and very quirky gaze that is distinctly Green.  It is a tale of true friendship, the power of curiosity and the need for connection.

The boundaries (On The Jellicoe Road)
Closer to home, the romantic threads of Melina Marchetta’s body of work has tightened its grip on young hearts and minds.  Whether it is the antagonistic, angst ridden interplay of Taylor and Jonah in On The Jellicoe Road, the foot stamping passion of Will and Frankie in Saving Francesca or the muddle that is the Josie, John and Jacob quandary in Looking for Alibrandi, Marchetta makes it work.  No one would claim that Marchetta’s work is contemporary romance, the novels listed are all contemporary Australian tales with rich characters that have romantic undertones.  The best kind of romance sees its characters and their journeys first and foremost before that of kissing. 

Kirsty Eagar's debut Raw Blue is by no means labelled as a romance and yet the friendship between Carly and Ryan slowly evolves by increments until they find themselves ready for it.  There are no triangles or instant love connections here, romance is someone earned - a facet all readers appreciate.

Sarah Dessen is the undisputed queen of the teen romance with her popular blend of problematic family life with that of an intriguing romantic coupling.  What can seem simple actually disguises firm character arcs for all her protagonists whether they are struggling with eating disorders, domestic abuse, grief, family separation or desertion.  Dessen has a way of making her novels feel lived in and safe, the boys always challenge the leads but never overwhelm them.

Romance, good romance, derives itself from quality character work.  A connection needs to be earned, built upon something other than attraction, snappy dialogue, charged moments or a glimpse of danger, all work to create a sense of wonder.  There are many authors who explore teen love and romance in a wonderfully rich way from Jennifer Echols, to David Levithan, Elizabeth Scott and Meg Cabot - the secret is going out there and finding them!

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