The Love Story We Need

Perhaps one of the things that made romantic comedies uncool a couple of decades ago was the overwhelming homogeneity of their characters: white, pretty, straight, cisgender teenagers, twentysomethings, or — if the female character was going to have a whiff of desperation about her — thirtysomethings, mostly upper-middle or upper-upper class, with the occasional insertion of a lower-middle-class character if the creators were going for a Cinderella/other-side-of-the-tracks vibe. This is both a thematic statement and a promise. The tension between Arthur’s parents has turned up a notch (or 10) ever since web developer Dad lost his job, leaving Arthur prepared for The Divorce Sit-Down any day. Even when the boys are accosted by a vitriolic homophobe on the subway, the scene is rendered with such a close focus on how this interaction shifts something within the characters that it is never diminished to the status of a mere example. B. What happens after a breakup? Their novel refreshingly oversimplifies nothing, conveying all the complexity inherent in a new love without ever abandoning the commitment to entertain. Here’s the gist: 16-year-old Arthur is in New York City for the summer with his parents, interning at his mother’s law firm. I think the universe nudges them into your path. It also made me think. OCTOBER 12, 2018
IN THE FIRST CHAPTER of What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, Arthur Seuss — one of our two teenage narrators/protagonists — confesses to the reader:
I believe in love at first sight. When the two boys meet-cute at a post office, only to be dramatically parted before exchanging names, phone numbers, or Instagram handles, they defy the odds to find one another again. Howard’s debut YA novel, When I Was Summer, is forthcoming from Viking Books for Young Readers in April 2019. He misses his friends back in Georgia and yearns for a Broadway-worthy romance. I just think you’re meant to meet some people. Even with the summer fading fast toward the moment when Arthur will have to exit stage right back to Georgia, the boys build a romance worth remembering and a friendship worth fighting for. Jessie and Ethan complete Arthur’s Georgia friend squad; the strain that Arthur has felt in his friendship with Ethan ever since he came out at Junior Prom is not just in his head, but it’s also not what he thinks it is. What if love does last? What if it’s us? These are the sorts of universal queries that bring us to stories in the first place. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t reveal what inspires Ben toward the end to think: “[M]aybe some people pop back [into your life] after you thought they were gone for good. Dylan is Ben’s platonic bromance best friend, a serial monogamist on the cusp of a relationship with a cute barista who he’s certain will be The One, and whom Ben is certain will soon be The Ex. Albertalli and Silvera have peopled their novel with a supporting cast that is just as specific, unique, and enchanting as their leads. Albertalli and Silvera turn that around here. The book’s themes are larger than politics, its lessons transcend the sexual orientations of its characters, and it never tells its reader how to feel. I imagine that the authors were tempted to pull aside the curtain just a little to make this a “teaching” moment, but their restraint allows the reader to remain immersed in the story — which is the much more powerful teacher, anyway. ¤
J. Unfortunately, when love stories involved characters beyond these narrow confines, they too often felt lecturey, good for us. But then, at some point (I’m going to arbitrarily call it the late 1990s), it became easy to write off romantic comedies as inherently saccharine, shallow, oversimplified, and formulaic. Each of these relationships asks the reader a thematically relevant question. Fate, the universe, all of it. In light of the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians, a riotously delightful romance, I can only hope that the genre is on the verge of a comeback. Albertalli and Silvera don’t offer simple answers but, rather, a few questions of their own: What if there’s never a breakup? I don’t mean it in the our souls were split and you’re my other half forever and ever sort of way. How does love last? Told from alternating points of view (Ben’s and Arthur’s), this book made me laugh out loud, crave the next chapter, and stay up way later than I should have. After finishing the last page, I found myself remembering that this is how a good romantic comedy should always feel — entertaining, nourishing, and accidentally enlightening. Thanks to the book’s clever physical humor and Arthur’s quippy wit, it seems safe, in fact, to call it a romantic comedy. As I lost myself in Arthur and Ben’s story, however, I almost forgot that their romance could be seen by some as a political statement. Hudson and Harriet are Ben’s and Dylan’s most recent exes, respectively; in the not-so-distant past, the four were an inseparable quadrangle, but now they’ve divided into two camps that have unfriended and unfollowed each other, leaving holes in their social circles not easily filled. How do you know The One when you meet him or her? Can love last? I’m going to cross my fingers and pray that this is the beginning of a trend, or the first sign of a recovery from one. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with any of those characteristics, nor is there anything wrong with retellings of Cinderella, but these conventions work to limit the stories that can be told, and they ultimately fail to represent the vast majority of lived experiences. Dear Reader, the authors have announced, this is a love story. Once upon a time, the romantic comedy was a respected art form (think: Billy Wilder, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare). The authors manage this feat by relying less on manufactured sexual tension and clichéd declarations than on the big questions that make honest romantic love a bottomless wellspring of dramatic potential. And they were never funny. […] [M]aybe this is the do-over I needed all along.” That quote, though, feels like a perfect encapsulation of the state of the modern romantic comedy. Instead, it shows its readers how the characters feel, providing an opportunity for empathy and private reflection. Ben Alejo, a New York native, is suffering through summer school, reeling from a breakup that unhinged his friend squad, and pretty certain that the universe is a love-destroying jerk. But not how you’re thinking. They’ve given us a love story that makes romance cool again. Can friendship survive romance? Maybe this is the do-over we’ve all been waiting for.