This is one of those reviews I prefer not writing, but because I know I will be asked time and time again what my thoughts were on this book, I will offer my very personal and entirely subjective impression of this story, reminding you that the opinions of one reviewer in no way define a book, and should always be taken with a grain of salt. I also premise this review by saying that I am an emotional reader who needs to connect with her fictional characters, as flawed as they may be, in order to appreciate their journey. And this was my greatest obstacle while reading this book.
“The day I fell in love with you was the first day you found yourself. You weren’t even mine yet.”
Helena Conway is a young woman in her early twenties, on the cusp of true adulthood. She comes from a loving and supportive family, she is outgoing, caring towards her friends, firmly on a path she thought she always wanted. But one dream changes everything. In this dream, she sees her ten-year-older self, in a home she does not recognize, in a part of the country she’s never even visited, the mother of two beautiful babies, in love with a man she knows, but who has never been hers. The man in her dream happens to be her best friend’s boyfriend. So, this one dream, this one glimpse at true happiness that she never knew she wanted, changes Helena’s outlook on life. She starts questioning her career choice, her friends, herself, and she convinces herself she is in love with her friend’s boyfriend, Kit.
“To fall in love with a boy is one thing, but to fall in love with your best friend’s boy because of a dream is … well, I’m f*cked.”
Naturally, Helena’s friend senses early on the growing attachment between Helena and Kit, and their friendship suffers as a result. Irreparably. Helena moves away, rearranges her entire life in order to find a small piece of happiness somewhere else if she cannot have what and whom she really wants, but every choice she makes stems from her obsession with Kit and the life she dreamed of having with him. And even though her heart eventually gets what it wants the most, fleetingly at times, this is not a ‘hearts and flowers’ kind of love story, and it remains peppery until the very end. Each moment of happiness is counterweighed by an act of emotional sacrifice, every small victory comes at a dire price, and the longer we remain in the heroine’s mind, the more we realise she would never be truly happy with all we might wish for her.
“F*ck fear, and f*ck Kit, and f*ck love. I don’t need any of that muggle shit.”
My greatest concern while reading this book was that I could not pinpoint the personalities of any of the characters in this story, their erratic and often inconsistent actions constantly changing my perception of them as a whole. Helena, in particular, is a complex character whose cynical inner voice does not always match the person she lets everyone see, or her behaviour at times, so much so that it feels foreign to her more often than not. She is a dichotomy of traits— self-indulgent to the core but selfless without fail, vain but continually self-deprecating, a cynical romantic but a hopeful one too—and while this opposition of character qualities and resulting behaviours kept me glued to the pages, it also prevented me from truly connecting with her from the start. She is an amalgam of disparities, and it is that incongruent quality to her character that eventually made me disconnect from her altogether. The hero, on the other hand, remained a question mark to me until the very end, a curious blend of wise one-liners and all-knowing smirks, but the substance of his personality stayed unexplored. Their connection thus felt somewhat impenetrable, and relied too heavily on the heroine’s obsessive personality and the meant-to-be scenario at the core of this story, rather than all the reasons why these two people were made for one another.
“In his mind, I’m just some possibility that could have been, but in my mind, he’s the only possibility.”
I do not need to like a character in order to enjoy their story. But I need to understand it. And in Helena’s case, I never did. The only character I actually did understand was Helena’s best friend, Della, whom we are not supposed to like or empathise with in this instance. But I did, and that created an even greater disconnection from the character I was meant to understand more.
“I’m trying to find myself.”
“That, my dear, is the scariest thing you’re ever going to do.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you might not like what you find.”
I have no doubts whatsoever that most readers will find this story fascinating, compelling, so perfectly different from every single ‘traditional romance’ out there, but I suspect I was not a good fit for it from the start. This story made me feel like I was floating in a sea of overwhelming glumness and melancholy, with no real highs or lows, just a doleful half way point, with the occasional ripple. I live and breathe for those moments of skin-tingling angst in a book that make me catch my breath and skip a heartbeat, and I never experienced them while reading this story. I also suspect that was due to my complete detachment from the characters.
There was always a good chance a hopeless romantic like me would not enjoy a book whose very title gave love the middle finger, but my morbid curiosity eventually won over caution, and I will not lie to you—after only two pages, I was hooked. The interesting premise, the quirky heroine so reminiscent of Olivia from The Opportunist, the drama galore from the get-go were all winning aspects of this story in my eyes at first, but unfortunately, as the story progressed, my connection to the characters and the story itself slowly started losing momentum. I have pondered on this book much longer than it took me to read it, and I am no closer to deciding whether this story is even a romance in my mind. In many ways, it is a reflective journey of a young woman trying to find herself, and learning along the way how very pricky true love can be. Relying heavily on the life lessons aspect of the story and all its philosophical assertions, I see this book more as a lesson in accepting life as it comes, never expecting it to be a fairy-tale. I did not hate it, I did not ever feel tempted to stop reading it, and I loved how different it is from the books I usually tend to pick, but it was not the kind of ‘fictional reality’ I enjoy reading, nor did it have the kind of characters I am personally able to connect with. I respect this author’s talent immensely, I admire her for her stance on writing non-traditional romances, and every iota of me hoped I’d love this book in the end. But as I said before, even though I was not overwhelmed by it, I am certain this story will find its willing audience and mean a great deal to a lot of readers.
“Life is but a carousel of four seasons. Unpredictable for the most part. Happy. Unhappy. Content. Searching. Mess up the order, and they still rebound at one point or another. I’ve learned that revolution can be inward or outward. A move across the country to gain perspective. A change of heart and mind to gain sanity. But the point is to revolt when the season changes. If only to quench your thirst, revolt.”
“You are supposed to be with me.”
What words are these? They startle me, and at first I think I’ve heard him wrong. He’s leaning across the table while our significant others are twenty feet away, waiting in line for our food.
“You and me,” he says. “Not us and them.”
I blink at him before I realize he’s making a joke. I laugh and go back to looking at my magazine. Actually, it’s not really a magazine. It’s a math journal, because I’m super cool like that.
“Helena…” I don’t look up right away. I’m afraid to. If I look up and see that he’s not joking, everything will change.
“Helena.” He reaches out and touches my hand. I jump, pull back. My chair makes a horrid scraping sound, and Neil looks over. I pretend that I dropped something and reach under the table. Under the table are our shoes and legs. There is a blue crayon lying at my feet; I pick it up and resurface.
Neil is at the front of the line ordering our food, and my best friend’s boyfriend is waiting for my response, his eyes heavy with burden.
“Are you drunk?” I hiss. “What the f*ck?”
“No,” he says. Though he doesn’t look so sure. For the first time, I notice the scruff on his face. The skin around his eyes is sallow. He’s going through something, maybe? Life is being bullshit.
“If this is a joke, you’re making me really uncomfortable,” I tell him. “Della is right there. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I only have ten minutes, Helena.” His eyes move to the blue crayon, which is resting between our hands.
“Ten minutes for what? You’re sweating,” I say. “Did you take something, are you on the crack?” What type of drugs make you sweat like that? Crack? Heroine?
I want Neil and Della to come back. I want everything to go back to normal. I spin around to see where they are.
“Stop saying my name like that.” My voice shakes. I make to stand up, but he grabs the crayon, then my hand.
“I don’t have much time. Let me show you.”
He’s sitting very still, but his eyes remind me of a cornered animal: frightened, panicked, bright. I’ve never seen that look on his face, but since Della’s only been dating him for a few months, it’s a moot point. I don’t really know this guy. He could be a druggie for all I know. He turns my hand over so it’s palm up, and I let him. I don’t know why, but I do.
He places the crayon in my palm and closes my fist around it.
“You have to say it out loud,” he says. “Show me, Kit.”
“Say it, Helena. Please. I’m afraid of what will happen if you don’t.”
Because he looks so afraid, I say it.
“Show me, Kit.” And then, “Should I know what this is?”
“No one should,” he says. And then everything goes black.