For someone who so rarely still seeks and appreciates that well-known flavour of existential angst to be found in coming-of-age tales, I find myself inexplicably drawn to them from time to time, drawn to the naiveté, the exasperation, the perpetual state of emotional unrest that colours those characters oh-so vividly, pulling us back to a time when we were as restless to grow up as we were desperate to slow down and absorb every waking second. Those bittersweet years of uncertainty we’ve all lived through can inspire the most compelling of stories, transcending genres, and touching readers regardless of their age. And in the hands of a gifted author, those stories can also become a complex emotional experience for the reader, where characters often stay with us long after the last page. This book truly resonated with me, still lingering in my mind and rendering me incapable of moving on, and I attribute that entirely to the characters, to the many fascinating facets of their personalities, and this author’s incomparable way of telling a story that is captivating and relevant in equal measure. I’ve loved pretty much everything I’ve ever read by Penelope Douglas, but this might just be my new favourite.
Ryen and Misha have been pen pals for the past seven years, ever since they were randomly paired up as part of a fifth grade project. But instead of stopping their correspondence as the school year came to an end, they continued writing to one another for years to come, their growing connection guiding and shaping them through adolescence, and giving them both a safe place to never have to hide who they are. They imagined each other’s personalities through the words they shared, inspiring one another to be better people, to want to be better people as they held the other on a pedestal.
“He gets the version of me I want to be.”
But never once during those seven years did either of them realise that as revealing as they can be, words can often hide things too, showing only those parts of themselves they wished to expose. And that is what Misha suddenly realises when he find himself in front of his best friend for the very first time—without her knowing who he is—as the image of the sweet, socially awkward young woman that he loved through her letters is quickly replaced by a very disappointing reality.
The way I dress, the guys I talk to, the games I play…it’s all plastic, and when I’m with him, I’m gold.
In place of the girl who inspired his music for years—his one and only muse—he finds the quintessential ‘mean girl’ who hides her imperfections by pointing out those of others. And the more he gets to know her, the more he struggles to reconcile all he’s ever thought of her, all he’s ever felt for her, with the shallow girl standing in front of him. And his disappointment quickly becomes a need to lash out at her and teach her a lesson.
How do you tell your friend—your best friend—that you’ve been right here, under her nose, playing with her like a puppet?
As pack leader of the popular kids at school, no one in Ryen’s circle of friends knows that behind her snide, emotionally detached and perennially bored façade hides a young woman who desperately needs to feel included and adored in order to feel less lonely, and who fears invisibility above all else. But from the moment a mysterious new student joins her classes and begins calling her out on her behaviour towards others, she is forced to see herself as he sees her—a poser.
I’m so tired. So tired of holding back everything I feel and want to say. So tired of being someone I’m not and making mistakes that I didn’t have any fun making.
In a titillating game of cat and mouse, they toy with one another daily, tormenting, goading, humiliating each other just to see them react, but with each confrontation, their mutual attraction spikes too, quickly turning hostility into unbridled passion. And the more they get to know of one another, the more desperate they become to shed all pretences.
What am I going to do with this girl? Just when I think I have her figured out, she pulls at me a little more. Just when I think I can’t stand her, and I can leave, never looking back, I turn around and want to make sure nothing hurts her.
Unfortunately, only one of them remains aware of the true identity of the other, and despite everything they’ve grown to feel for one another, once she finds out who he is, she might never forgive him for deceiving her.
When she finds out who I am, will she remember how perfect we are?
There are so many aspects of this story that I loved very much—the exhilarating dynamic between the leads, their sexual chemistry, the well-developed secondary characters, the numerous twists and turns in the storyline that kept taking my breath away—but the one facet of this story that stood out to me the most was the characterisation of the heroine as a conflicted quasi-villain, made even more compelling by her crumbling resolve to remain the person she is expected to be. We see her emotional vulnerabilities as vividly as her flaws, and for me, that made her an exciting heroine to connect with. Ultimately, this is the story of a young woman desperate for acceptance and admiration from her peers at a time in her life when social anonymity seems like a troubling prospect to most teenagers. And it is the story of a young man who learns that the true strength of a person’s character lies in their ability to correct their mistakes and learn from them.
I recommend this book with all my heart, and cannot praise this author highly enough on her ability to inject her stories with a depth of emotion, compassion, and understanding that makes them impossible to put down.
“We’re all ugly, Ryen. The only difference is, some hide it and some wear it.”