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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: The Unwritten Rule

The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott. Simon Pulse. 2010. Copy from author.

The Plot: Sarah and Brianna, best friends since forever. Ryan, Brianna’s boyfriend. Ryan, who Sarah likes. Likes likes.

Yes — Sarah has broken the single most important unwritten rule.

Sarah likes her best friend’s boyfriend.

Sarah’s a good girl! She doesn’t break the rules, especially the one that says stay away from someone’s boyfriend. But when she sees Ryan, she cannot help how how she feels.

And the thing is — maybe, just maybe, Ryan likes her.

The Good: From the first page, Scott had me hooked, caring for Sarah, seeing the world through her eyes where maybe, kind of, sort of, it is OK to like your best friend’s boyfriend.

Let me begin with this: oh, the love, the lust, the glances, the heat. The Unwritten Rule brilliantly captures all those emotions of wanting someone else, wanting a boy, wanting that boy to want you back: “”Yes,” he says, and his voice is rough, intense, and we are standing close enough to touch now but we aren’t touching, we aren’t, but I can feel how we could all around us. In every breath I take there is the promise of his skin touching mine and I want that. I want us to kiss again, I want him to kiss me, I want him.”

Ah, love. But when the person you love who may love you loves someone else? Such as your best friend?

Let’s be blunt. Love triangles are hard. Or, at least, I am hard on them. I have never bought into the “it was an accident!” school of excuses for cheating. I want ethics and ethical behaviour. Scott gives that to me — Sarah double and triple thinks every step she takes, agonizes over what is happening, yet she cannot deny her feelings.

I also want something more than stereotypes. Triangles tend to have certain predictable roles. In The Unwritten Rule type of triangle, where the “cheater” is the good girl, the girlfriend is typically painted as an evil bitca. (The other type of triangle? The girlfriend is the “good” one and the other girl is “slutty”; the third type is both girls are good and have no idea the other exists because the boy is a player.)

Scott twists and turns those stereotypes, making them full, deeper characters who are anything but typical. “Good” Sarah is the best friend side kick, the buddy, and is so cautious about moving forward on her feelings that she almost misses out on life and love. Brianna is the beautiful one who goes through boys, who views her six weeks of dating Ryan as a noteworthy and admirable time period. Brianna may have bitchy moments, but she is neither evil nor a bitca. And Ryan, Ryan is neither player nor played. In other words, a reader cannot help but like and respect each of these individual teens.

OK, here’s the thing. Now is the time in the program where we go to spoilers. So if you don’t want them, back out now. Know that the romance is hot; know that Scott does not rely on stereotypes; know that you want Sarah to have a happy ending with Ryan but have no idea how Sarah can do that while remaining true to herself and not hurting anyone else.

I am warning you! There is no crying about spoilers after this point.

Sarah and Brianna, best friends. Except — well, you be the judge. Here is a short sample of some of the things Brianna says to Sarah: “I’ve got this new powder in there. It’ll make your nose less shiny.” “You’re not as boring as you think you are, you know.” “Remind me that I have some conditioner that’s supposed to be great for limp hair, OK? I totally bought it for you and remembered it just now.” Yes, Brianna is that type of friend. But Brianna can also be loyal and thoughtful. And Sarah hears how Brianna’s parents talk to Brianna, and knows Brianna is echoing that behavior.

Sarah puts up with a lot from Brianna. To be honest? I really, really wanted Sarah to call Brianna on this garbage and Sarah doesn’t. Sarah is too kind — she understands Brianna, feels compassion for her, doesn’t want to hurt her. Wait, you’re saying, but doesn’t this make Brianna evil? Or a bitch? No. It makes Brianna human, and flawed, and wanting love and friendship yet having no idea how to give love or friendship.

Sarah is a bit of an odd main character. Yes, she’s kind. And she’s let herself be overshadowed by Brianna. Sarah half believes all those slights Brianna doesn’t mean; Sarah sees herself as beige next to Brianna’s gold. While the reader quickly realizes Ryan likes Sarah and got sideswiped and dazzled by Brianna, Sarah takes a lot longer to realize it because Sarah doesn’t realize that she, Sarah, could be wanted and pursued. In other words, Sarah is one of the most passive main characters I’ve encountered in a long time. And you know what? It totally works. You feel for Sarah, believe in her, and part of the quiet charm of The Unwritten Rule is Sarah’s slow, realistic path to action, knowledge, and awareness. Sarah’s own issues of insecurity are not Brianna’s fault. Just as Brianna is formed by two parents who don’t know how to love, Sarah is formed by two parents whose love for each other doesn’t always have room for Sarah.

Brianna is awesome, in that scarily intimidating way some people can be. I understand Sarah falling for Brianna’s personality and strength, and understand Sarah misunderstanding her own quietness for weakness for so long. As I read the reviews excerpted at Scott’s website, I see that Ryan and Sarah are not alone in falling for Brianna. I did; and so did other reviewers.

In a triangle, the hard thing to believe is that the guy is with the wrong girl. Is he a player? Or is he stupid? Or is he weak? Here, Ryan and Sarah make tentative steps towards each other. Brianna storms in, a force of life, of brightness, and momentarily charms Ryan. Yes, he allows himself to be seduced by her intense, honest, upfront interest in him and by the time he recovers it’s too late. He’s “with” Brianna and finds it’s not easy ending things. He tries; and part of the beauty of this book is Ryan’s shy fumblings towards Sarah that get intercepted by Brianna. He’s only seventeen; he tries.

And here is another thing. I one hundred percent believe that Brianna knew all along that Ryan and Sarah were slowly dancing towards a relationship with each other, remembered that Sarah had liked Ryan for years, saw what was happening and deliberately stepped in, turned on the charm, to ensnare Ryan. Not from meanness, but from fear, fear of losing Sarah’s friendship. Why is this marvelous? Because Scott does not spoon feed the reader. What Brianna knew, and when, and why she acted, is for the reader to decide, not for the author to over explain.

The Unwritten Rule makes my Favorite Books Read in 2010, because the nuanced, believable characters are so memorable. And did I mention how hot the writing is? Wow baby.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Oh I loved this book-for all the reasons you mentioned. I hate love triangles but this one is so well written and you really do like all the characters and understand their motivation. Brianna is awful at times, but I understood why she and Sarah were friends. Such a complex little novel that won me over!

  2. Sarah, it was great, wasn’t it! I want a book all about Brianna. This was about a triangle, but it turned out to be more a view of personality and friendship.

  3. Liz, after reading your review, I think I’ve pinpointed some of my problems with this book. I never bought Brianna & Ryan. Brianna is flirtatious and a cheater herself (which I found stereotypical). I did enjoy reading about her family life, which explained Sarah’s saint-like compassion and sealing her side-kick position. I’ve had friend breakups over a lot less than the awful way Brianna treats Sarah. But we don’t often see what makes girls like Brianna act the way they do. She certainly emulates her mother’s behavior.

    Also, from the outset, it is clear Ryan wanted to be with Sarah. The extent to which Sarah tries to assert “Ryan and Brianna” were a loving couple irked me to no end. The PG ending was also a little hard to believe. Or am I just jaded? 🙂

    But Brianna was a very good character.

  4. Nicole, I love being able to have smart discussions about books. I agree that whether or not someone buys into Brianna & Ryan influences the reaction to the book. I think there is an argument that what matters isn’t what we think of B&R — like you, I saw Ryan liking Sarah from the first “hello”. It’s what Sarah believes, and I think Sarah’s self-confidence & self-doubt are enough to buy into that Sarah thinks that Brianna & Ryan are a couple. Also, Brianna keeps telling her so. And I reallly don’t want to overthink why Brianna insists Sarah is around them all the time — rubbing it in? Needing Sarah to see them as a couple?

  5. Liz, I find myself liking this book more now than when I was reading it.

    I think, as an adult reader, I was so mad at Sarah for her lack of self-esteem. I hated being dragged to that place of indecision and zero self-worth. It was also tedious to read about over and over. I was also angry at Ryan for his putzing around. I was definitely reading this as a twenty-something and not a teen.

    But the more I think about this and consider all you are saying, the more I have to agree Scott’s perspective is truthful and realistic. It would certainly be an easy book talk! I still can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I think I’m going to pick up “Living Dead Girl.”

  6. I got frustrated with Sarah, but then I also thought back to my teenage years and wondered what signs/flirting I’d missed back then. For Ryan, what I said to myself was, “OK, imagine there is this nice guy you really like and then George Clooney or John Cusack calls you up… It would be really hard to say “no” to them! And I think that was what happened with Ryan.

  7. Liz! I get it now! I would probably slight my soul mate for a date with Ewan McGregor. I get it now. I would just have to know, “What would it be like to date Ewan McGregor?”

  8. Oh, Ewan is another good example! And add to it that Ewan isn’t just standing next to you. He’s calling you and saying how amazing you are and do you want to fly to Paris for lunch?


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