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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

Review: Real Live Boyfriends

Real Live Boyfriends (Yes, boyfriends, plural. If my life weren’t complicated, I wouldn’t be Ruby Oliver) by E. Lockhart. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Ruby Oliver is now a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! Everything is terrific, until Noel goes away to visit his brother for the summer and starts acting strange and distant. Ruby handles the situation with her typical Rubyness, which means plenty of humor with the occasional heartbreak.

The Good: Ruby Oliver was first introduced to the world in The Boyfriend List (15 guys, 11 shrink appointments, 4 ceramic frogs and me, Ruby Oliver). Ruby was fifteen, suffering from panic attacks, and had just started seeing a therapist. Her school was full of ex-boyfriends and ex-friends. I know, that sounds heavy, but The Boyfriend List was laugh out loud funny because of Ruby, and how she told the story, and her wide range of pop culture references. The Boyfriend List was also a very clear look at high school social politics, of friendships and frenemies and boys and boyfriends.

Next came The Boy Book (A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them). Ruby was now a junior and while less isolated and lonely than in The Boyfriend List, she is still sorting out the complicated emotional baggage ex-friendship brings. Ruby narrates, and part of the joy of each book is how the reader observes things Ruby doesn’t.

The Treasure Map of Boys: Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch–and me, Ruby Oliver continued Ruby’s junior year. Ruby (as the titles indicate) continued to be boy obsessed and continued to be sorting out her relationships with family, friends, and boys. Part of Ruby’s charm is her self-absorption,  and her growing awareness of being less self-centered and also of taking ownership of her actions and their consequences. Not in a “deal with the bad consequences” way, no; but in a “don’t pretend you drift through life and stuff just happens way.” I made the infinitely stupid comment in my review of the third book that Ruby’s story felt done.


Which brings us to the fourth Ruby book, Real Live Boyfriends. Ruby is a senior and has a real! live! boyfriend! One thing I like about Ruby is how she projects and reacts to things and doesn’t always see the full picture. While the reader doesn’t know why Noel starts acting differently around Ruby — or, rather, stops acting in the way Ruby expects a real live boyfriend to act — the reader can see that some of what is going on is that Ruby has a clear vision in her head of what should be and what should not be. Which can be a bit tricky for those who aren’t in her head. Ruby has to work out two things: one, speaking up about what is happening insider her head and vocalizing her fears and disappointments instead of pretending everything is OK, as well as realizing that how she processes things and interacts with people is not the same way others process and interact and that is OK.

What really struck me with Real Live Boyfriends is how much I’d been taken in by Ruby’s boycraziness and loneliness and wanting friends that somehow I had stopped viewing Ruby’s panic attacks as something serious. This book really hit home that what this quartet of books is about is teens and mental health. This may be one of the few young adult novels out there that honestly addresses mental health issues in a way that is not message-driven and does not make the mental health issue the point of the book. Ruby’s panic attacks are part of who Ruby is, not the sole thing about Ruby.

As is obvious from the start of this, the Ruby books are best read in order. Not because of them being sequential and building on one another, which they are and do; but, rather, because combined they tell one story, of Ruby, as she matures and grows over the course of three years. It’s a true coming of age work and as I closed the book I wished that there was an award for best series, because the strength of some stories are not in their individual volumes but rather in the complete story. I don’t mean to say that the individual books aren’t strong — they are wonderful — but the true magic and genius of what Lockhart has done is revealed by looking at Ruby over the course of the entire series.

And now, for some quotes because I just adore Ruby’s voice:

Even though I know there is no such thing as a happy ending [7], a little part of me thought I had found one . . . . Even though having a real live boyfriend didn’t solve my mental problems or fix my family. Even though life wasn’t a movie. It still felt like a happy ending. It did. Until eight weeks later. [7 You can’t have an ending. It’s impossible. Because unlike in the movies, life goes on. You’re never at the end until you die.” I wasn’t sure how to replicate the footnotes, but wow, I love how Ruby views her life through movie lenses even as she knows that is foolish.

Which brings me to “but life is not a movie, as I continually forced to acknowledge.”

Me too, Ruby. Me too.

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. Love, love, love this series and Ruby Oliver and E. Lockhart for writing the books and making Ruby up. One of the things I love about kids and YA books is that even though this is intended for teenagers, I totally learned from the mental health/therapy stuff as an adult – and that sort of thing happens all the time for me with lit for the younger sets. We should all have such good therapists as Ruby does. I swear between this therapist and Robert B. Paker’s therapists in all three of his series, therapists in my real world have a lot to live up to. And I now have typed therapist so many times it no longer seems like a real word.

  2. HUH. I never thought of Ruby as mentally ill — isn’t that funny? And yet, as a fan of the series, I KNEW she had panic attacks – but they never occurred to me as anything more than a reaction to her crazy life. I keep forgetting that the panic and the therapist came FIRST, the crazy boys she can’t choose between came later.

    I’m putting Ruby and her folk on my Erika’s List, which is a list of YA books dealing with mental illness, and I thank you for the reminder that some of E. Lockhart’s books belong on the list.

  3. Jen B., I want there to be a series award just so I can give it to Ruby. Love, love, love. And yes to the awesome therapist.

    tanita, for some reason, up to now, I just thought of it as Ruby not being able to deal with certain things in her life — it didn’t hit me just how serious the panic attacks were. It was like a lightbulb went off — d’uh! And thanks for the link to the list!

  4. Thanks for the excellent summary. I always appreciate when an author can present contemporary fiction that contains realistic issues such as anxiety and mental health. As I see it, this age group (and many of us adults) can always find a way to use solid literature as a springboard for understanding.