Mature-content, YA/NA romantic drama
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Publisher: Sleeping Dragon Books
Pages: 398 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
This contemporary novel is a mature-content, young-adult (bordering on new-adult), romantic drama. The story is told exclusively from the first-person point of view of the female protagonist, Piper Barlow. She and the romantic hero, Roman Lombardi, are both 17, almost 18, years old. They live in a small town near Adelaide, in South Australia. They are in Year Twelve (the equivalent of 12th grade or senior year in high school in the USA). Piper has a deep, dark secret that she refuses to reveal to anyone: she suffers from crippling social anxiety. Her entire life is a continual, uphill effort to never inflict her inner pain on anyone or disappoint anyone’s social expectations of her. As a result, even though she has loving parents, a loyal best friend and a coterie of lesser friends and friendly acquaintances as a popular girl at her school, she feels excruciatingly lonely.
To everyone besides herself, Piper appears to be a beautiful, sweet-natured, innocently fragile girl. Two of the most attractive boys in her school, fellow seniors, Roman and another boy named Mason Carter, seem to be utterly fascinated with her–or so her best friend Hadley assures her, because both boys constantly stare at Piper. Hadley informs Piper that Roman in particular has been “eyeing” her for years, in between dozens of casual “hookups” with other girls, all of which involve a one-night stand and a casually cruel brushoff afterwards. He never buys any of these unfortunate girls so much as a slice of pizza, because he won’t commit even to a single date. Mason is much more conventional than Roman, in that he actually does date, and he has been committed enough to be sequentially monogamous. But he doesn’t have extraordinary staying power in that he has had five or six girlfriends over the course of only three or four years. This, however, is acceptable “good boy” behavior because, miraculously in Piper’s opinion (and mine!), none of these girls seems to bear the ultra-desirable, gorgeous Mason the slightest resentment after these breakups.
Given that these two boys seem to be Piper’s only choices for dating (for unspecified reasons), Hadley pushes virginal Piper, who has barely ever dated and possibly not even been kissed, toward Mason, whom Hadley feels is more Piper’s slow-and-cautious speed than Roman. Hadley claims that she herself is the female version of Roman, and she could easily handle what he is offering, hot, casual sex, but Piper definitely could not. Hadley, in fact, has no hesitation examining their male classmates and analyzing their private anatomy and potential as casual, sexual-intercourse hookups in a manner very similar to the crudest remarks made by misogynistic men sizing up women as possible bedmates.
In the normal course of events, Piper would have continued waiting, indefinitely it seems, for pleasant, studious, athletic Mason to finally ask her out, and never had anything to do with raunchy Roman. Until Roman, his divorced mother, and his older sister’s five-year-old, illegitimate daughter move in next door to Piper and her parents in a quiet neighborhood outside the city limits with no other nearby houses. Suddenly, Piper is running into Roman every day. He owns his own car, but he rides the bus with Piper instead, walking the half-mile to and from the bus stop in the morning and afternoon, and she views approvingly the tender way he interacts with his little niece. In the process, Piper gradually learns that Roman isn’t the heartless cynic he appears to be. He sees beyond Piper’s smiling false front to the insecure anxiety beneath, and he doesn’t judge her for it. Instead, he goes out of his way to cheer her up, including making her laugh and, wonder of wonders, laughing along with her. Then comes the night that they accidentally meet at Piper’s favorite de-stressing place, by the shores of a lake near her home. And their unlikely friendship really begins to take off.
I had just read Keeping Up Appearances by this author prior to reading this novel and was expecting it to also be a PG romantic comedy without sex. It was a bit of a shock, therefore, to find that this book is written very much in keeping with the norms of the New Adult subgenre of romance–heavy on internal angsting and containing multiple sex scenes. However, because these protagonists are still in high school and the author has marketed this book as “mature young adult” fiction, the sex scenes are not remotely as graphic, or as frequent, as in a typical NA romance. But since I had never before now read this degree of sexual description in a YA romance, I was quite taken by surprise when the first sex scene happened. Hopefully, other potential readers will do what I did not do and carefully read the clear warning that the author responsibly provides in her description of the novel: “Not recommended for younger readers due to mature content.”
Roman is a dark YA hero of the sort typically found in “edgy” YA fiction. He is a brooding, “rebel without a cause,” James Dean hero who views the world with a heavy-lidded, cynical sneer, and mood-alters his angry alienation with cigarattes, drunkeness, sex with groupie-like girls, brawling, and vandalism. He has been frequently arrested for disorderly conduct, both for his own misdemeanor crimes and taken in for questioning about the misdemeanor crimes of his best buddy, Rio, who is as Byronically dark-natured as Roman. To date, though Roman rarely attends class, and constantly flunks tests, he has never been held back a grade in school, and even seems in line to graduate high school. We are given to understand this is because he has always been bailed out of his educational and legal difficulties by his wealthy, emotionally distant father, whom everyone in his town is in awe of. Roman’s mother is sweet and loving, but no more willing or able than Roman’s father to make sure that Roman receives the anger-management therapy he so obviously, desperately needs. His only relatively harmless angst-relieving activity is skateboarding. (Which seems an oddly, geekishly boyish pursuit for a macho male.) I personally am not a fan of romance protagonists who smoke and drink to excess–whether in YA, NA or adult romance. This book, in fact, is the first one I’ve read in over 25 years with a smoking hero. However, the author attempts to mitigate readers’ being repelled by Roman’s smoking, and its inevitable health and hygiene issues, by having Piper not be repelled by it. She comments, midway through the book, “Funny how he smoked so much but never smelled like it.”
I also personally enjoy a classic, “us against the world” plot where two disaffected loners find a home in each other, and this story certainly delivers a strong version of that plot.
Ms. Stevens is a very talented writer and particularly excels at presenting a romantic hero who, while displaying an obnoxiously alpha, choleric disposition to the rest of the world, interacts with the heroine like a lovable, beta male who is sensitive, affectionate, a good listener, and basically, very nurturing.
Ms. Stevens also writes a traditional romance-novel structure, which we diehard romance fans adore: the essential romantic conflict of distrust slowly evolving to trust through a personal-growth arc of one or both protagonists, and a happily ever after (HEA) ending which is, of couse, in protagonists this young (and likewise for NA romance) more of a “happy for now” ending.
Hadley is a familiar BFF confidante found in the “erotic romance” genre since Harlequin Blaze first started, back in the 90’s, offering the now very familiar plot device of a good-girl heroine encouraged by her down-and-dirty BFF to be more adventurous about sex. Given that this is YA, Hadley is a less extreme version of this type of BFF in that she doesn’t push Piper to have sex, and she herself seems to be more talk than action regarding engaging in sex herself.
I was glad to see Piper, in particular, work beyond a self-protective over-reliance on the stereotypical female role of people-pleasing doormat who lives to fulfill the every need and demand of the people in her life. As for Roman, his major defining attitude and life motto is the self-fulfilling prophecy, “What you see is what you get with me….I can’t be changed.” This declaration sounds obnoxiously egotistical, except for the fact that his chief virtue is wrapped up inside it: He has no desire to try and change anyone else because he doesn’t believe other people can change and grow either. Piper accepts his world view when they are together, and is liberated by it because it gives her the freedom, for the first time in her life, to act in a way that she otherwise has always considered terrifyingly risky in that she has believed it will inevitably bring judgment and rejection. She tells Roman that they are “two people having an extended pity party” together. This ironically is healing for both of them, because it allows them to externalize their deepest blind spot–that they both are suffering from anxiety due to unconsciously wallowing in self-pity and resentment–un-enmesh from it, and thereby begin to grow beyond it. As the two of them for the first time, with anyone, share their deepest hopes and fears with each other, this acts to deliver the most significant element that the very best romance novels manage to achieve: The romantic conflict between the protagonists is the clash between their socially created, false selves, which cover up and hide their authentic, true selves. Only if they can reveal to each other their true selves–which is the ultimate sacrifice to “earn” true love–can they become worthy of true love.
For fans of angsty, sexy NA romance, this book will be a fun read.
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 4
Social Drama Plot: 3