“It’s midnight, it’s sweltering, and I might be high on Vicodin, but that guy – that guy right over there – that’s him. The him.”
Isla has had a crush on Josh Wasserstein since her freshman year at the School of America in Paris. She’s been way too shy to ever say anything to him, so she’s always pined from afar, admiring his drawings and yes, okay, his cuteness. But their previously parallel lines cross at a Manhattan cafe one summer night before their senior year and some serious sparks fly. Turns out, Josh has had a crush on Isla this whole time. Their blossoming relationship moves quickly, but Isla and Josh feel as though they were made for each other. This is what people talk about when they talk about fate. But when things veer horribly off track, Isla ends up adrift and feeling more and more like a blank canvas. Josh has his passion for art, her best friend Kurt is into maps and she has… what, exactly? Although her favorite necklace is an engraved compass, Isla just can’t find what it is that most defines her, let alone where her happily ever after might lie.
This book was my palate cleanser after Kindred (excellent. gut-wrenching.) and I don’t think I realized how much I needed a novel like this one until I blasted through it over the course of a slow workday, completely obsessed. I don’t know that I would say it’s the strongest volume in Stephanie Perkins’ YA romance triptych (I think I would still give those bragging rights to Anna and the French Kiss), but Isla is the one that hit me hardest.
It wasn’t about the romance for me. (Pure, delicious candy that it was.) Rather, it all came down to Isla herself and her struggles and insecurities with not having any particular passion or goal in life, wanting adventure but not the risk, avoiding decision-making and letting the cards fall where they may. And this is where Stephanie Perkins’ books-about-love really and truly shine: they make you root for the starry-eyed girl and not just whether she’ll get together with the cute boy at the end.
“I’m… a blank canvas. There’s nothing here to love.”
I have a close friend who once said she doesn’t have a “thing” that she was skilled at and passionate about. This idea of being a blank canvas deeply concerned her and made her feel as though she wasn’t interesting. (For the record, I completely disagree with her on all counts.) But the idea of having a “thing” or not having a “thing” is an interesting one. We do it a lot when we’re constructing or describing a character, because it makes things easier. Hermione Granger is an academic and a bookworm. Harry Potter loves Quidditch. And Ron Weasley… is the blank canvas, which is something he struggles with throughout the Harry Potter series.
Not only do we do this in fiction, but we do it a lot when we’re talking about real people in our lives. Friends’ parents conceptualize me as a writer and my relatives see me as the family bookworm. When I’m describing my childhood best friend, I say first that she’s an artist. My brother? A musician. My college roommate? A biologist. All these things are true, sure, but maybe it’s a little bit reductive to constantly rely on this kind of shorthand. We want to boil other people down into whatever we think is their quintessence, because it’s so much easier to digest the idea of a person, right? (Not the actual person. That is what we would call wildly unhelpful.) But is what you do what you truly are? I don’t know. It’s tempting to think that way and Isla certainly does. By not having a passion or hobby or career she can point to and say is hers, she’s incapable of measuring her own worth and I don’t know if she would feel this way if we weren’t a society that says the yardstick of selfhood is made up of one’s singular passion in life.
“I can’t stop thinking about risk.”
Out of all the lines in this book, this one struck me the hardest. Strangely random? Maybe. But ever since I turned 25 last April, life has been upsettingly awful and as the awfulness has continued to snowball since spring, I’ve become the kind of person who spends a lot of her time wallowing. I’m in the dark and twisty place and it’s made me all kinds of numb and quagmired.
Isla isn’t quite that far gone, but she’s a person who likes to watch adventures from afar. She prefers to let life take her where it may instead of make decisions that could conceivably blow up in her face. The quagmire is comfortable. It’s familiar. And Isla’s rather hard on herself (something else I can painfully relate to), and her intense self-criticism freezes her further.
This is the part of the book that isn’t about Josh&Isla, but Isla herself, and where things really take shape. The tiny threads that have been there since the start are pulled tight. Isla weighs her risks and the worst-case-scenarios, and comes to the realization that maybe they aren’t so worst case. All she has to lose is familiarity. Life is in the risk and that’s something I can’t stop thinking about.
*Isla’s best friend Kurt is on the autism spectrum, but instead of reducing him to just that, Stephanie Perkins uses it to shade in his character as well as his friendship with Isla. (I also very much appreciated that Kurt is physically attractive, almost conventionally so.)
*Isla and Josh have a very sexual relationship almost as soon as they start dating, which is not something you see tremendously often in YA, particularly in YA romance. But Isla (and Josh) are refreshing in their attitude, treating sex as a natural, enjoyable occurrence, not something to shy away from.
*During their illicit weekend in Barcelona, Isla and Josh encounter the outdoor escalators in Barcelona that take you up the hill to Parc Güell. I’d completely forgotten about these; they make for a very strange sight, since they look like they should be in a mall somewhere rather than exposed to the elements. One of the reasons I love this companion series is that it transports me back to places I’ve been, but don’t know if I’ll ever see again.
*This isn’t too much of a spoiler, but Anna and Lola do make an appearance near the end of the book. It was funny to see how three protagonists shared page space and viewed each other. (Anna also makes an appearance in Lola’s book, Lola and the Boy Next Door.)
*It’s not until 150 pages in that conflict raises its head. Isla later compares the events of Anna and the French Kiss to a soap opera, and compared to Isla’s book she has a point. I tend to be more of a plot-centric reader (and writer), so I think this glacial start was the one aspect of Isla that felt slightly off note to me.
*St. Clair’s height is revealed! At 5’4″ (with his boots on) he’s much shorter than I imagined, and I have to give Stephanie Perkins a terrorist fist bump for making a romantic lead that vertically challenged.
Isla and the Happily Ever After
2014. Hardcover: 352 pages.