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We Need Diverse Books: Romance Edition
We’re in the mood for love today so we’ve got two reviews of YA romance for you. Both books feature couples who aren’t usually seen in mainstream romantic narratives, so regardless of their chances for the Printz (we’ll get to that in the reviews) they’re important contributions to the continuing effort to bring diverse representation to all kinds of stories which makes them worth checking out. But how about those other qualities that the RealCommittee will scrutinize at the table? Will either of these even be in the conversation?
In my review of As I Descended last January, I said that we would probably revisit Robin Talley’s writing this fall and here we are. Our Own Private Universe is everything I expected it to be: warm-hearted, romantic, and filled with great character development. It’s sweet didacticism (to be clear, I don’t use that word as a slight at all) and somewhat easy plot resolutions will keep it out of serious contention but as usual, Talley is an author to note for her portraits of LGBT teens.
Aki and Lori are spending the summer in Mexico on a youth-group trip with their church. Although they’re there for altruistic reasons, the best friends also resolve to have a summer romance–or at least some summer hook-ups. Aki identifies as bi but has never really done anything with anyone. The novel is written in her voice; it’s not present tense but Aki’s narration feels very immediate as we get her stream-of-consciousness thoughts and reactions to the action that she describes. Talley nails the uncertainty and eventual blossoming of young person coming of age. This is where her writing shines because the authenticity of voice gives the romance a high intensity.
Relationships of all types, familial, platonic, romantic, and sexual are explored adequately but perhaps without any fresh insights. The plot beats are somewhat predictable but satisfying all the same. Aki and Christa’s relationship is unique because of who they are, but all the universal trappings of first love are here including misunderstandings and miscommunication. This isn’t necessarily a negative, in fact, it makes the experience of reading feel like indulgent comfort food. However, along with the somewhat flat characterization of Christa and Lori, who veer slightly too much into stereotypes, it means that Talley probably won’t be in Printz conversation this year.
Karyn here, hopping in on Joy’s post.
First, a piece of personal information that has bearing on this particular book and the depth of my appreciation for it. My mother in law is Indian, from Gujarat, and my sister in law is half Indian and much younger than me. I’ve spent nearly two decades seeking out books with Indian protagonists for my sister-in-law in particular, and although she’s in her 20s now, I still send titles her way.
When Dimple Met Rishi was a sheer delight, but more than that, when I texted my sister- and mother-in-law “OMG YOU MUST READ THIS” they were already reading it. And each of us thoroughly enjoyed it for entirely different reasons, coming at it from very different places. My notes basically said it’s a little saccharine and slightly too long as a meet cute romance (but totally satisfying in the end), and superlative as an examination of first generation adolescence, family, and tradition. My mother-in-law thought it was the funniest thing she’d read in ages — Dimple and Rishi’s family’s are comic regardless of your background, and Menon has a light, deft touch in making the humor feel universal and loving, never exploitative. But apparently if you basically grew up with either or both of the sets of parents among your friends and neighbors, it’s significantly more funny and people will look at you side-eyed as you laugh until you cry on a bus. My sister-in-law liked it for all the expected reasons — fun and sweet romance, what’s not to like? — but also really liked seeing herself in the most explicit way, and seeing someone who could be her as the romantic lead.
I want this book to win the Morris, or at least shortlist, although I know the competition is insanely stiff. I know romance is easy to dismiss. And humor is easy to dismiss. But this one has solid writing, plenty of feels, a predictable plot (appropriate for the romance genre) that still manages to be full of tiny surprises and charming moments, a brown girl with brains and beauty in the lead role, and a nuanced touch when it comes to exploring relationships beyond the romantic center, both family and friend. Basically, it’s pure win, and the issues that make it not a Printz contender (it needed another editorial pass and a trim at around the 3/4 mark; the language is occasionally clumsy; it’s cheesy although only in the best way) are minor in the context of the smaller pool of Morris contenders.
About Joy Piedmont
Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.
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