Lovetorn. By Kavita Daswani. HarperTeen. $17.99.
Love & Leftovers. By Sarah Tregay. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Memory Boy. By Will Weaver. HarperTeen. $8.99.
The Survivors. By Will Weaver. HarperTeen. $17.99.
It is the most common of all themes in novels for teenagers: love in all its forms, all its splendor, and all its difficulties. Especially the difficulties. Book after book is filled with tales of teens – and often their parents as well – coping with love and loss, trying to understand the love-wrought changes in their lives, seeking (and usually finding) some level of satisfaction that, the books suggest, only love can bring. The problems faced by the protagonists of the love novels differ, but the story arcs are very much the same. In both Kavita Daswani’s Lovetorn and Sarah Tregay’s Love & Leftovers, for example, teenage girls are torn between two different boyfriends; their parents have problems that affect the teens’ relationships; both girls yearn for a return to a normal life, but both realize that they are not sure what is normal anymore; and both learn and grow through a mixed-up period of their lives and are, at the affirmative ends of their respective books, better able to face the future.
This is not to say that the books or their central characters are exactly the same – far from it. Daswani’s Shalini and her family have just moved to the United States from India, and they have cultural adaptations and adjustments to make – one of them involving the fact that Shalini has been engaged since she was three years old to a boy named Vikram. But in Los Angeles, Shalini meets a boy named Toby, and realizes that he makes her feel different from any way that she ever felt with Vikram: “I was once miserable without him [Vikram]. But not anymore. I had filled my life with other things.” Shalini wants to turn to her mother for help and emotional support, but her mother has become depressed since the move (which was done because of Shalini’s father’s job). The book is written in straightforward first-person prose, with a smattering of Indian words and expressions (there is a glossary at the end). In contrast, Tregay, writing her first novel, presents the story in free verse, and she includes several viewpoints (although Marcie’s is the main one). Here the move is within the United States (Idaho to New Hampshire), and the impetus is the breakup of Marcie’s parents’ marriage – it turns out that her father is gay. So, as Marcie tells her Idaho boyfriend, Linus (after trying to handle her feelings for another boy, J.D., in New Hampshire), “I couldn’t see that Dad was all alone/ in his marriage without anyone to talk to./ I couldn’t see that Mom needed meds/ just to set her earth back on its axis./ I couldn’t see that I was a horrible best friend/ who demanded unconditional love in return.” Despite their differences in both style and substance, though, both these books partake of similar sensibilities, the authors navigating their central characters through circumstances that differ in particulars but that have essentially the same emotional resonance.
Will Weaver’s 2001 Memory Boy, now available in paperback, and its just-released sequel, The Survivors, are about love of a different sort – family love – and involve facing trials of a different sort. These are post-apocalyptic novels, the apocalypse here being a series of volcanic eruptions that lead to years of ash falling from the atmosphere, changing weather and ruining everyday life, making people increasingly desperate to find ways to survive. Lootings, killings, and all the stuff of science-fiction survival books will be found here, along with the “glue” that keeps the central family going: love of each other despite the distressingly difficult circumstances. The Newell family especially depends on 16-year-old Miles, who manages in Memory Boy to get everyone safely out of Minneapolis and to a wilderness cabin aboard a wind-and-human-powered contraption that he has constructed from bicycles and sailboat parts and that he calls the Ali Princess. The title of the book refers to Miles’ photographic memory, on which the family comes increasingly to depend as Miles, his parents and his younger sister, Sarah, travel through regions where some things are familiar (there are still Dairy Queens and McDonald’s restaurants, although the food is no longer inexpensive) while others are deteriorating rapidly. Unfortunately for readers in 2012, Weaver sets Memory Boy in 2008, a fact that undercuts the predictions of doom: readers will have to think of this as an alternative-world story, not the potential-disaster-in-the-real-world one that Weaver intended it to be. In the sequel, The Survivors, Weaver delves more deeply into the everyday post-disaster life of the Newells, showing them adapting to the radically changed living conditions – with Miles really being the head of the family, his mind holding information that helps the family live off the land while his hands hold a shotgun that he is quite ready to use. It is love that binds the family together, and the love is sorely tested when Miles, suffering a brain injury in an accident, loses his memory, so the other family members must learn new lessons in self-reliance. Newell tries to keep the book realistic, and does a good job of showing what it could be like to live without electricity or indoor plumbing – and having to rely on hunting to put meat on the table. But the memory-loss angle is obvious and a jarringly unbelievable plot manipulation, and Weaver’s determination to show that better instincts will come out even in terrible circumstances comes across as forced (although understandable for the teen audience he is trying to reach). People’s better natures, annealed by love as well as hardship, may indeed keep life livable even in the face of natural disaster; certainly that is true in the sorts of disasters that strike the real world regularly. But Weaver’s oversimplified attempts to show that this will happen in case of a major, long-term worldwide catastrophe are not very convincing , even though they are certainly uplifting.