Kissing in America by Margo Rabb (2015)

I was surprised upon checking this book out of the library to find that it is a Young Adult title. I am not opposed to reading Young Adult; some YA books I have sought out to read all on my own (Hunger Games), some I have read at the urging of the teenagers in my life (Twilight, Divergent) and some I have read because my own teenage son has recommended them to me (The Giver, Lord of the Rings, and many Christopher Pike thrillers we share at Halloween.) Generally I stick to adult fiction, but today was a lazy Spring Break morning I lay in the hammock while the kids played and completed this novel, finding it a sweet and thoughtful story.

Our heroine is highschooler Eva, a girl who mourns her dead father and is saddened by her lack of relationship with her cold mother. She is also a romance novel enthusiast and, although she is a savvy New Yorker who should “know better,” she clings to her beloved novels because of the happy endings they provide her. “I loved romance novels because when you opened the first page you knew it would end well. Your heart wouldn’t be broken. Bad things were temporary in those books. In the end the hero and heroine would be ecstatically in love and enormously happy.”

Eva falls in love with a fellow student who shares her grief and uncertainty about life, but shortly into their romance he moves to California. Eva must decide whether to get over it and bury her feelings (as her mother suggests, “move on, don’t be so thin-skinned”); grieve but not too dramatically (as her best friend suggests, “it could be worse”); to run from boys as her aunt suggests (“Men are all beasts. Love is a fantasy;”) or to do as her romance novel heroines would and go after the boy. She, of course, chooses to go after the boy.

What follows is a sweet, funny, roadtrip-meets-coming of age story about a girl who must navigate love with with only two wildly opposite sets of advice: the heady and wild romance novels that believe in love above all else or the serious, adult advice of the women in her life who have been hurt and believe that romance and love are overrated. “[My mother insisted that the idea] that happiness only comes from romantic love is the biggest myth of our society. ‘Your books are selling you a fantasy version of love, It’s dishonest. Misleading. Untrue. Real love of is a mess’.” Eva knows that her mother and her aunt — who are still deeply scarred from their own unhappy experiences with love — have both had forgotten what it was like to believe in real love and feel that your deserve to experience it for yourself.

The author does a great job showing us that enjoying romance novels is about not the content of novels themselves but about how they give us permission to believe in happy endings and that they make it acceptable (at least in private) to have an optimistic view of the future. Two of the very things that some teenagers desperately want to believe in but feel are so far out of their reach. “I loved the fantasy and escape [of my romances] because I needed to believe that love didn’t always end in heartache, that the world isn’t only filled with tragedies and accidents and newspapers filled with horrible news. The were bright against the darkness and I needed them.”

Parts of the book serve as a reminder of all of the ways adults fail teenagers: by not taking them seriously; by demanding that they change who they are or what they like; by trying to dictate to them how they should feel about life; by trying to police and control them rather than cooperate with them; and by demanding that they never make mistakes. How much simpler things would be if we just accepted that from a very early age children are their own people who must make their own way and we — their parents and loved ones — are largely spectators in their lives? Our job is to be the most loving, most cheerful and most helpful spectators as possible; but we cannot live their lives for them and they would never want us to.

Here’s to sometimes risking it all in the name of love, because even though sometimes it goes horribly wrong…other times it works out perfectly.

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