YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
I read Nina LaCour’s Hold Still shortly after my friend Jeff died, and the book utterly wrecked me. So of course when I learned that LaCour had written a YA lesbian romance, I . . . well, okay. I let it sit in my TBR list for two years.
But now I’ve read it, and returned to tell you that you’d probably enjoy it more than I did.
The plot, in brief: our narrator Emi (a talented young production designer in Hollywood) and her best friend Charlotte discover that recently-deceased movie icon Clyde Jones has a secret (orphan) granddaughter named Ava, whom he’s left an unknown (but presumably enormous) sum of money to. They hunt Ava down, reveal her grandfather’s identity, and point her to her awaiting bank account. They also point her to an audition for a new movie Emi and Charlotte are working on.
So Ava ends up learning about her (deceased) family, becomes filthy rich, and lands the lead role in what’s expected to be a fairly big movie. She also—of course—gets the girl: Emi.
Emi — an eighteen-year-old infected with Hollywood’s movie-sickness.
Ava — an eighteen-year-old with a troubled and mysterious past. She ran away from her cold, lesbian-hating adoptive mother, Tracey, and is now trying to scrape together a new life for herself in Los Angeles.
Charlotte — Emi’s best friend and occasional co-worker. She’s eighteen, but approaches every situation with a sensible, seasoned, professional air that makes her seem twice her age.
Clyde Jones — iconic star of Hollywood’s old Western movies. Recently deceased. Publicly known to be a bachelor, but secretly the father of Ava’s (long deceased) mother, Caroline.
A Slow-Growing, Lesbian Romance!
Need I say more? No. No, I don’t.
Actually, I will say more. It’s possible that Emi and/or Ava could be bisexual. Neither girl puts a label on her sexuality, and although both clearly state they like girls, both also admit to (rarely, potentially?) being attracted to a guy. So I’m tagging this book as both lesbian and bisexual, just to cover my bases.
A Biracial Narrator/Protagonist!
Emi’s race is barely remarked on, but what we did see made me so happy. Like so:
The book also briefly highlights how Emi’s (upper-middle class) family’s experience of and approach to their race compares to a homeless young black man’s experience and approach. I thought the comparison was both interesting and valuable, and wish the book devoted more than a couple pages to it.
Neat Details About Production Design!
Emi’s job entails designing movie sets: choosing the right furniture, rugs, plants, dishes, etc., then making the set look real. I loved watching Emi work, and seeing why she chose [these dishes] or [this wallpaper color] or [this couch] over the thousands of other [dishes/wallpaper color/couches] available.
For example: here, she’s spent seven weeks searching for just the right couch for a scene in which a teen character has sex for the first time (with a scumbag, the teen later realizes). She’s finally found the couch:
Lesson: Life’s Not A Movie!
When Emi begins uncovering the truth of Ava’s grandparentage, she goes all Prodigy Production Designer and tries to craft a movie-style Tragedy-Turned-Triumph story for Ava. One of the first steps in her plan: introduce Ava to the fancy-pants hotel Marmont (which is thick with celebrities and celebrity-watchers).
But life—even Ava’s fairy-tale-esque life—isn’t a movie that Emi can manipulate.
Life is life, and it’s experienced in excruciating slowness and clarity, with no helpful foreshadowing of what lies ahead. People are not characters in movies, and their lives are beyond Emi’s creative control.
Hurray for narrators who learn interesting and important life lessons!
I Was Bored
Okay, so this could be a problem with me rather than the book. I’m a fantasy reader, not a contemporary-romance reader.
My complaints, in brief:
What kept me reading, then? The fact that it was alesbian YA romance. Had it been a straight couple, I probably would have set it aside.
(Actually, I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place.)
Emi’s Character Development
The story’s told in the first person perspective, from Emi’s point of view. Overall, the writing style (i.e., Emi’s inner monologue) is calm, clean, and reserved, leading me to assume that Emi is a calm-clean-reserved sort of person.
That is, until Emi describes herself (and her older brother Toby) thusly:
The energy-level bit threw me off. Calm-clean-reserved Emi had shown almost no energy, much less off-the-charts energy.
So I started paying closer attention to Emi’s behavior and narration, to see if that energy ever came through.
Did it? No.
I’m sorry, Emi, but you can’t just say “I have more energy than other people can handle” and then not follow through. As it stands, it looks like either you don’t know your own personality, or your author (who writes you with such a calm-clean-reserved voice) doesn’t. It’s impossible for me to bond with a narrator whose personality I never get a solid grasp of.
Whose Story Is This?
This book might’ve benefited from being told from both Emi and Ava’s perspectives.
Emi’s the narrator and protagonist (she learns important lessons about herself and life, and those lesson change her), but for most of the book, she has neither a real conflict nor an interesting goal.
It’s Ava who’s living the rags-to-riches story, with all its requisite complex emotions, internal conflict, internal and external changes. But we see almost none of those changes, and it’s unclear how (or if) she changes as a person as a result of her experiences.
I mean, sure, we see her trash her adoptive mom’s house while searching for her birth certificate; she cries while watching the movies that her deceased grandfather and deceased mother acted in; she has a brief, emotional confrontation with her adoptive mother (that doesn’t really resolve anything). But that’s about it.
It is so incredibly frustrating to be shackled to a rather boring character doing rather mundane things, while another character is enduring amazing struggles and major internal changes largely off-screen.
“But Liam,” you argue, “this book’s about how real lifeisn’t a fairy tale or a movie. If Ava—with her fairy-tale-esque metamorphosis from troubled homeless teen to happy wealthy starlet—were the narrator, that’d undermine the book’s message.”
Okay, fine. Maybe this is a flaw in me as a reader, and not a flaw in the book. And yes, it is neat to pair a “Life isn’t a movie” message with an Average Jane Narrator who’s watching from the sidelines while a Fairy-Tale Heroine’s life get turned upside down in Fairy-Tale Ways.
But I, personally, would rather get in on some of Fairy-Tale Heroine’s action—or, at the very least, have a more interesting Average Jane Narrator with genuinely interesting conflicts and goals of her own.
The world obviously needs more lesbian YA novels, and this certainly isn’t the worst lesbian book I’ve read to date. But it just wasn’t quite enough—emotional enough, intriguing enough, engaging enough, romantic enough, powerful enough—for me.
My search for a five-star lesbian YA novel continues.