Lola and the Boy Next Door is the second book in Stephanie Perkin’s loosely-linked young adult trilogy (Anna and the French Kiss, Lola and the Boy Next Door, Isla and the Happily Ever After)… it was good stuff, y’all. In fact, dare I say I liked it much better than Anna and the French Kiss? Lola is significantly more grounded than Anna, not emotionally, but just as far as personality and life situation – I had trouble fully identifying with both Anna and Etienne in French Kiss because their lives were so thoroughly privileged. Yes, they both had family troubles which made them more sympathetic, but I’ve never been a drop-dead gorgeous teenager who gets to attend boarding school in France, and I suspect most of the rest of us haven’t either. It was all just a little too much, a little too surreal and fairy-tale-like.
All of which is to say – Lola is much more identifiable – her family’s middle-class, she works a very average job at a movie theater, she’s pretty but not absolutely stunning, and she lives in San Francisco. (Side note: San Francisco as a setting was a delight, as I visit often and love that city. It’s under-utilized as a setting for American books).
Lola Nolan lives with her parents (two married men) in the Castro district in San Francisco, in a delightful if small house passed down by her grandmother. She has a smart, driven best friend and a steady boyfriend in the form of tattooed punk-rocker Max. Life for her is pretty good…until some old neighbors move back in and her life turns upside down. Calliope Bell was Lola’s best friend until she started becoming a star ice skater and dropped Lola for not being cool enough. Calliope’s twin brother Cricket, meanwhile, the soft-spoken, awkward foil to his sister’s shining light, was Lola’s first love. Their relationship ended abruptly (and, traumatically for Lola) almost before it began however, and Lola hasn’t seen either of the Bell twins for years.
The first thing I fell in love with about Lola is that she has a distinct passion. She’s a committed designer who is constantly designing her own clothes; she wears a different outfit every day, usually with a new wig, and decorates her costumes with bangles, glitter, feathers, whatever suits her mood. And she’s completely unafraid to follow this passion – she’s been doing it since she was a kid and has long since chosen to shrug off any comments she gets at school. By now, most people know her as the crazy, creative dresser, and expect it of her. She also puts in long hours of real work designing and sewing costumes and teaching herself new things. It’s really delightful to have a heroine with a fully-developed passion that’s not, well, boys.
Another strength of the novel is how well-balanced the first half is between Max, Lola’s current boyfriend, and Cricket, her first love. Perkins didn’t go the cliched route of making Max an easily-hatable jerk – he’s patient, attentive to Lola, and genuinely engaged in the relationship – there’s a sweet moment where after some family drama she calls him and he lets her rant at him for an hour. Despite being four years older, he’s not using or playing her, nor is he a thoroughly bad guy. What Perkins does well is show the gaps in his character that gradually, slowly, help to shift the two apart (though frankly Cricket has more to do with that than anything Max does). He does ultimately do something unforgivable, but it’s not the lynch-pin that ends the relationship, and overall he felt like a fully-drawn character. Most of us know someone like this: many good qualities, and that one bad quality that leaks over and can negate everything they’ve built with their good qualities.
Max is not demonized, and there’s an interesting back and forth in the first half as Cricket pops up more and more in Lola’s life and she learns to know him again, so is spending time with both boys. Some jealousy on both sides comes into play quickly, which I admit I greatly enjoyed – I do love me some good jealousy, but it doesn’t take over the plot. And Cricket is an endearing hero, and much more fully-sketched than most male leads of romantic YA novels. A genius with his hands, his hobby is crafting inventions out of metal and wood. He’s funny and creative and vulnerable, a rare mixture and a bold characterization on Perkin’s part; no charming smooth-tongued casanovas here!
He still felt too perfect however, which is always Perkin’s flaw – either the world or the lead are too perfect. I mean did the boy have a flaw? Besides being overly self-sacrificing and loving? And yes, that is a weakness, but it’s hardly a…problem such as a quick temper or an overweening anger. He was also far too blindly in love with Lola – I prefer leads who do have a backbone and some sense of what is healthy and right relationally. It wasn’t healthy for Lola to receive such unadulterated worship, in the same way it wouldn’t be for a girl in real life. There’s one moment three-fourths of the way through the book where Cricket gets angry at Lola for behaving badly (as she is, very badly) – and in that moment he was instantly more interesting to me – but the moment passes all too quickly. And he’s back to worshiping the ground she walks on. Lola is fairly self-aware and learns some good lessons before the book is over, so it didn’t make me check out of the novel, but it did decrease my overall satisfacation with them as a functional couple.
I was also disappointed that Lola’s parents didn’t feature as good influences in her life – they written by Perkins with warmth and affection and more depth than most parents, which is why it felt like a waste that the only role they had in the novel was to occasionally yell at Lola. There are a few moments of affection, but I kept wishing that one of them would have a conversation with Lola which genuinely helped her to move past her problems and think about her identity. Instead, the bits of wisdom that help Lola come from her estranged mother or near-stranger Calliope (it’s her words spoken in passing that convinced Lola to do something she had decided to back out on, and that seemed unfair to me – couldn’t one of her dads have discerned that she was intimidated by this big event, and encouraged her instead?). The wisdom Lola received would have been more convincing coming from her parents rather than dysfunctional acquaintances, and would have allowed them to have more of a role in the novel.
Finally, there’s some really interesting discussion of identity that pops up now and then surrounding Lola’s costumes and what they mean to her. I would really like to have seen that developed more: the extent to which she used her head-to-toe costumes to hide behind flashy fabrics and bright colors, and the extent to which it set her free to express herself. The moment near the end when she finds a sartorial compromise that suits her exactly – an elaborate dress, but her own hair – was wonderful, but it passed too quickly without being explicated. What exactly was Lola thinking when she looked at herself, and when she made the choice to go with that look? Will she largely discard the wigs in future?
But Lola is a fun, complex character, the plot moves along quickly with a lot of different parts to it, and the romance is really endearing. It felt incredibly real and engaging, and it’s the young adult novel I’ve read that reminded me the most of Rainbow Rowell (who, by the way, left a positive review of it on Goodreads). I loved this: it’s quick, unusually good read, and you should read it.
Tagged: Anna and the French Kiss, book review, boy next door romance, first love, first love romance, Lola and the Boy Next Door, Lola and the Boy Next Door book review, Lola and the Boy Next Door review, Rainbow Rowell, romance, Stephanie Perkins, Stephanie Perkins book review, YA, YA book review, YA romance, YA romance review, young adult novel