Queens of Contemporary YA Romance

10 02 2013

Sarra Manning, meet Sarah Dessen… Sarah Dessen, meet Sarra Manning…

smsdOn one side of the Atlantic Ocean Sarah Dessen firmly holds the crown of Contemporary Teen Romance Queen. What Happened to Goodbye, Dessen’s 9th novel is the cat’s 5th encounter with the American Queen of Teen Romance, and yet again she scores big time with the cat, even though the romance aspect of the book is now probably the most understated aspect of the book compared to  any of her other works, instead focusing more on family dynamics. On the other side of the ocean, there’s Sarra Manning. She’s been slightly more prolific than Sarah Dessen, having published books for the Adult as well as Young Adult market (Adorkable is actually her 15th published book), but like Dessen, she equally  beats any other writer in the contemporary teen romance right back into their corner.

There are obvious similarities between these two Teen Queens. First of all, both authors clearly put characterization as their top priority. Even if that means that your protagonist is – well, let’s be honest – an insufferable bitch as is the case with Adorkable’s Jeanne Smith. Manning, in this case, does obnoxious with style and sustenance, though.

adorkableJeanne Smith is the 17-year-old avant-hipster protagonist, one of the 2 voices we get in Adorkable. Jeanne is a self-proclaimed dork, an outcast, a complete stranger to her own (Y-)generation[1] and as such she has more or less branded herself, with a totes adorkable blog, a twitter account with half a million followers, and guest appearances and presentations at actual hipster conferences. She lives alone (she’s a sort of emancipated minor with a sister doing an internship in the States, a mother doing a hippie degree in South America and a dad who only makes guest appearances in her life) and tries to do A-levels at the same time as taking over the internet with her self-made dork empire.

The second voice in Adorkable is that of 18-year-old Michael Lee, who lives at the opposite end of the “dorky unpopular outcast – cool  popular conformist”-spectrum. While Jeanne shops at jumble sales and prides herself on not even owning a pair of jeans, Michael Lee shops as Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch and is the # 1 popular guy at school for whom the girls just line up. When Jeanne’s boyfriend and Michael’s girlfriend decide they like each other more than their respective girl- and boyfriend, Jeanne and Michael’s lives collide.

Whatever you say about Jeanne and Michael’s likeability – they both are pretty unlikeable – it’s a fact that Manning succeeds amply in giving the two some serious backbone. In the case of Jeanne this is perhaps the most obvious. She’s definitely her own woman (a real type of feminist who wants to reclaim the color pink and de-stereotypize it) and will not be dissuaded to conform or give in. But that’s not the sort of backbone I mean… I’m talking about what Manning does to establish her character. And she’s done literally everything to make her as believable as possible: Jeanne’s incessant tweeting (Oh.My.God.Kill.The.Bitch.Now!), her trying to change the other in her relationships, … This is the mark of a writer who’s not afraid to show that teenagers are often just obnoxious brats who think they own the universe. Jeanne as well as Michael are arrogant in their own ways. Jeanne because, in her claim to difference, she just disses everything that doesn’t fit in her ‘different universe’ (and that’s a lot!)… But seriously, how authentic can your claim to difference and the dorkside be when you tote an iPhone and your living room looks like nothing more than an Apple-endorsed commercial  because of the many Apple devices you’ve hooked up to link you to the interwebs. Can we say conformity?? Michael, on the other hand, starts off as an ultra-conformist and is just plain awful when he continuously calls Jeanne ugly and is afraid to be seen with her in public – even when they’re in a sort of relationship…  What sort of boy does that to their “girlfriend”? The total asshole-kind! So also in characterizing Michael, Manning goes the whole nine yards. Even though I would hate knowing either of these characters “in real life”, I completely believe their characters, which is a credit to Manning’s skills.

Sarah Dessen’s Mclean iswhtgsd equally as convincing. Like in Manning’s Adorkable, the female protagonist of What Happened to Goodbye has been drawn to a T, flaws and all. Mclean Sweet has moved four times in almost two years. After the divorce of her parents, Mclean decided she would rather follow her consultant-father around the States than stay with her mother (who she blames for the very nasty and public break-up) and her new family. Since then, every move has been a way to literally reinvent herself. At every new place she was Beth or Lizbeth or Eliza, but she’s never been just Mclean anymore… that is until she moves to Lakeview. Maybe for the first time in 2 years she feels that she’s found a place where she can just be herself again… maybe she’s even found a new home.

Identity and being who you  really are were so much a part of Adorkable, but in Dessen’s 9th book it’s probably even more prominent. Most of Dessen’s female protagonists can come off as somewhat resigned about their situation in the beginning of Dessen’s books, but not Mclean Sweet. From the outset, she’s very feisty, especially in her opinion about her mother. Mclean doesn’t hide her anger at all. And even her rebellion – inventing different persona – is an active one, rather than a quiet, passive one.

What is great about any Dessen book is that Dessen takes her time. She doesn’t rush characterization, but she doesn’t rush her plot either. Both are carefully built up. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get a slow story.  You get the feeling that this is exactly how it is supposed to go, because this is the life of these teens and you want to immerse you into their world as much as you can… and then you encounter characters and things you’ve encountered in other Dessen novels (Jason, Ume.com,…) – which, btw, is also something Dessen and Manning have in common – and then it makes you feel right at home, just as these kids are trying to find theirs.

Besides being the queens of characterization, Manning and Dessen clearly share a love for somewhat strange romantic hook-ups. OK, so you know that there’s going to be a romance, and you know how most of Manning and Dessen’s books are more or less going to end – some would say they’re formulaic and predictable stories (boohoo, you nay-sayers!)  – but the ride is what it makes it all so exciting! Dessen (especially her!) and Manning succeed in satisfying my inner girl needs… there I said it. Who doesn’t like a story of two unlikely people meeting and getting to know each other? Who doesn’t like a story in which the protagonists grown into themselves but get a little bit of help along the way? And neither Manning’s nor Dessen’s romances are of the insta-love type, which is another plus for these writers: they write about friendship and romance.

And thirdly, Manning and Dessen’s books all fall well within Freytag’s traditional dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement… If that’s being predictable, then so be it. But the cat for one, thinks that if something is done well, then something is done well and you just gotta give the girls props for doing it!

However, besides these very palpable similarities, the Atlantic Ocean really does serve as the great divider… Obviously, there’s the unmistakable language difference. For American readers, Manning’s language complete with British teen slang of totes cool and blates hip might be like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. May take some time getting used to, but not an insurmountable difficulty!

The biggest difference between Manning and Dessen’s writing though, is in the way the romance is depicted and then develops into a sexual relationship as well. With Sarah Dessen – as with a lot of American contemporary YA romance writers – the teen relationships are of the very chaste kind. I mean, obviously sparks are flying all over the place, but besides kissing, there’s not a lot of actual sexual activity going on and it’s almost as if sex just doesn’t exist. Now, I’m not saying the teens should be doing the naked pretzel from page one, but considering that your characters are of the teen variety means you have to include at least some of their sexual adventures, because… Newsflash! They’re 17! They are having sex! And although Dessen does satisfy my inner girl needs – which are of the romantic rather than the explicit kind – Manning’s portrayal of the teen relationship is definitely more grounded in reality. I don’t think that American teens are less likely to encounter in sexual activity (duh!), but I do think there’s a bigger (self-)censorship with American YA writers, editors and publishers than with the British YA crew, who’re a lot bolder in what they reveal[2]. Manning’s portrayal of teenage relationships shows teens with clear wants and needs (there’s even talk about masturbation in Adorkable). I think the way Manning shows Jeanne and Michael having sex is well…real. Jeanne and Michael are very comfortable with their bodies, they are having safe sex, and are both just OK with that. It also shows that if you write your sex scene the way Manning does – i.e. very very well! Nothing overly graphic, but honest and respectful towards characters and readers – then the reader can almost feel both the awkwardness and the sexiness of the situation. Great stuff!

Reading Sarra Manning’s Adorkable right after Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye was completely unintentional, but by doing so, it brought out the similarities and differences between two very skilled authors who can each proudly claim the crown of Queen of Contemporary YA Romance on their side of the Atlantic Ocean. The cat’s a fan!


[1] BTW, if you exchange the word ‘dork’ with ‘nerd’ and ‘adorkable’ with ‘awesome’, add a dash of self-indulgence and self-proclaimed ‘art of being different’ and you get a British version of… yeah, that.

[2] BTW, I don’t know who took the executive decision here, but the cover for Adorkable is just completely wrong! This is how Jeanne is described in the book: “[…] I have a very odd body. I’m small, like five feet nothing, and compact so I can fit into children’s sizes, but I’m sturdy with it. […] Anyways, I’m sturdy, stocky even. Like, my legs are really muscly because I cycle a lot and I’m kind of solid everywhere else. If it wasn’t for the iron-grey hair […] and the bright red lipstick I always wore, I could have passed for a chubby twelve-year-old boy.” (p.5)

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