It’s a simple formula. Boy meets girl (or, more often, girl meets boy. Or, less frequently, boy meets boy or girl meets girl). Boy and girl fall in love. One loses the other, or some other conflict arises. Then comes the happy ending. This plot, or some variation of it, is one we’ve read over and over again. (In fact, nearly every YA book these days seems to contain some sort of love story, and that includes the hordes of paranormal and apocalyptic novels.) Sometimes, the love element doesn’t work: it feels forced, or the couple has no chemistry, or the romance feels added as an afterthought. But when it works, that’s when we fall hopelessly in love alongside the characters. What creates this magic? What makes good love stories good? Well, they either follow the formula, or change it in some meaningful way. And they don’t all have happy endings. But they do have well-developed characters; snappy, authentic dialogue; believable scenarios and character dynamics; growth as a result of the romance; and assertions about the nature of love. And maybe a sex scene or two. Here we pick out some of our favorite realistic contemporary love stories from recent years and highlight what hooked us in each of them.
Sometimes what makes a love story great is simple and classic, and the plot is exactly what you’d expect. That’s the case in The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Jennifer E. Smith’s novel about falling in love with a stranger. On her way to London for her dad’s wedding, Hadley meets Oliver, who’s seated next to her on the plane. By the time they touch down at Heathrow, she’s fallen for him, and in possibly the most romantic moment in the least romantic setting ever, they share a passionate kiss at customs. Then Hadley loses Oliver in the crowd, and, without a phone number or e-mail address, she has no way to contact him: “After all those hours, all those moments between them, how could that just be it?” Of course, it isn’t: over the next few hours, at a wedding and a funeral (both emotionally charged), Hadley and Oliver continue to run into each other. Each time, they don’t know if they will see each other again, so their meetings are honest, raw, and immediate — making the happy ending feel both certain and deserved.
But a love story isn’t always so serious. The first time Chelsea meets Dan in Leila Sales’s Past Perfect, she’s a prisoner tied to a chair. Every year, Chelsea works as a colonial interpreter, and every year she and her fellow colonial interpreters wage war against the Civil War re-enactors across the street. As part of the War, the Civil Warriors have kidnapped Chelsea, and Dan has been assigned to guard her. Their first conversation consists of the kind of awesomely sarcastic banter you wish you were capable of in high school. Romance is inevitable once they’ve discussed, for example, soaking uniforms in urine. (Chelsea, in disbelief: “There is a garment which you wear on your body, after first bathing it in bodily fluids.” Dan: “Just the buttons! To give them an authentic patina.” Chelsea: “What the hell is an ‘authentic patina’? Is that a thing?”) Their forbidden, secret romance continues in similarly hilarious fashion, serving as a light counterpart to the novel’s more contemplative reflections on the nature of history and heartbreak.
A discussion of YA love stories wouldn’t be complete without one by Sarah Dessen; her fans know she can deliver a realistic and affecting love story. And though the romance isn’t the central theme in What Happened to Goodbye, it’s an appealing accompaniment. After her parents’ divorce, Mclean chooses to travel around the country with her dad, a consultant in the restaurant business, and reinvents herself each time — Lizbet, the theater geek; Beth, the student-council secretary; Eliza, the cheerleader. But when at the latest stop she meets Dave, the boy next door, she tells him her real name, which leads to everyone in town calling her by it. And from then on, there’s no hiding who she really is. What it takes for Mclean to be herself is having someone in her life who wants her to stay.
It’s important to point out that though love stories with gay couples aren’t exactly crowding the shelves, there are stellar examples out there. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the story of Ari Mendoza’s confused search for meaning set alongside (and intertwined with) his special friendship with Dante Quintana. The two lonely Mexican American teenagers meet one summer and become inseparable almost immediately; their bond is cemented when Ari saves Dante’s life. Dante eventually comes out as gay — and attracted to Ari — but the reader has already begun to see that these two boys love each other as more than friends. We’re somewhat privy to the truths, “secrets of the universe, the secrets of my own body, of my own heart,” that Ari is searching for, and this omniscience heightens our joy when he finally admits to loving Dante back. Theirs is the most coveted kind of love — respectful, loyal, reciprocal, organic — and Benjamin Alire Sáenz develops their relationship with deft subtlety.
Ask the Passengers is as much about the purpose of love and compassion as it is about a relationship. Astrid Jones mentally sends the love inside her to those she has difficulty loving (like her insensitive mother) and also to strangers, specifically passengers on airplanes flying overhead (whose love lives we’re sporadically given snippets of). Even when it’s unreciprocated, Astrid’s ability to love others is remarkable, but she’s tortured by sexual confusion and a lack of love for herself. As with Ari and Dante, readers rejoice when she’s finally able to love her girlfriend Dee openly and receive love in return (“We are a happy couple who are madly in love, and we are kissing the way people kiss on their wedding day. With joy and relief and love…Without shame”). A. S. King skillfully and without preaching teaches the reader about love’s true nature: its healing and empowering properties, and the many shapes it can take.
June and Wes’s romance in Pete Hautman’s The Big Crunch starts when they bump into each other, literally: it’s such a hard hit that June gets a black eye. Not an auspicious start, to be sure, but these two have a tough time denying they have a connection. June’s family moves a lot, so when her parents announce they’re leaving Minnesota, she cuts Wes loose and that’s the end — or is it? The straightforward writing style and the fact that these two people are not particularly swoony or romantic builds to an ending that simultaneously recognizes the power of first love and the possibility that it might not last. As June says to Wes, “You will always be the first boy I ever loved…Even if someday we hate each other, I will always love you.”
Like many contemporary YA love stories, The Big Crunch is fairly chaste, but other books are bolder. They address sex as an expression of love, without apology or didacticism. In these stories, sex is often a momentous decision, as it’s usually the first time for one or both of the protagonists, and they discuss it and prepare for it in a mature (but still authentically awkward) way. A good example is My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick, in which Samantha falls for Jase, the completely charming, handsome boy next door, and they decide to be each other’s first time. And it’s uncomfortable, sweet, and most of all, real. The novel doesn’t describe the experience in cringe-inducing detail, but neither does it discreetly look away after just a few sentences. Instead, it acknowledges the wonder, tenderness, and importance of the moment. As Samantha thinks when she and Jase first lie down naked together: “When people talk about sex, it sounds so technical…or scarily out of control. Nothing like this sense of rightness, of being made to fit together.” And then: “I say, the girl who has always guarded her heart — I say, for the first time, ‘I love you. It’s okay.’”
An unfortunate part of life is that not all great love stories are blissful or uplifting. Luckily, there are books that reflect that reality — and are more romantic for it. One example is Jandy Nelson’s perceptive, smart The Sky Is Everywhere, a tremendously poignant novel about love triumphing over loss. Lennie’s older sister, whom she idolized, has just died, and Lennie feels incapable of ever feeling joy again. Enter Joe Fontaine, a new boy in school who will “only ever know this new sisterless me.” Joe’s optimistic outlook is infectious (and his crazy good looks don’t hurt, either), and Lennie feels swept away by him, unencumbered by grief. But Lennie’s also drawn to her sister’s boyfriend, Toby, who shares Lennie’s grief. The intensity of this love triangle is accentuated, set as it is against a backdrop of deep, inexplicable loss.
Known for his excellent love stories from a guy’s perspective (An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska), John Green switches sexes to spectacular effect in The Fault in Our Stars, a consummate tragic love story told from the point of view of Hazel. Hazel and Augustus have the ideal romance — except for the single sad element of circumstance and the unfairness of the universe. They both have cancer, and they’re both going to die sooner rather than later, but that’s not what makes their love so poignant. Their lives may be ending, but their connection is life-affirming. They are artfully vivid characters: smart, sarcastic, eccentric, and self-assured enough that they’re able to love maturely and completely. This may be more the case with these two than other teens due to their terminal illnesses, but they don’t love each other as patients or fellow cancer warriors. Instead, Augustus separates his love for Hazel from his understanding that he’ll soon die. “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things…I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable…and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.” Augustus’s astuteness doesn’t undercut his feelings. It just makes us cry harder.
Hazel and Augustus’s romance is doomed because of circumstance; in Stay with Me, Céce and Mack’s love is doomed due entirely to human fault — but it’s equally devastating. Céce, a gifted student from a loving family, and Mack, a high school dropout with an abusive father, fall fast for each other. They enjoy a mere forty days together before volatile Mack snaps and makes a mistake that changes his fate, and their relationship’s, irrevocably. Alternating narration allows the reader to see both perspectives on their love, their painful separation, and the blowback from the incident. Mack is the rare protagonist who is almost as endearing for his imperfections as he is for his positive traits. To illustrate this, author Paul Griffin incorporates troubled, sensitive Mack’s talent for rehabilitating abused pit bulls: the wounded creatures can be dangerous when provoked, but when shown kindness and love, their capacity to return love is staggering. Mack’s love for Céce proves the goodness of his soul and the immateriality of his actions on it; that he is so flawed makes Céce’s love for him all the more affecting and their separation all the more heartbreaking.
When discussing tragic love stories, there’s none more classic than Shakespeare’s. The Romeo and Juliet–esque tale has been told many, many times before, but Jenny Downham delivers a superb version of star-crossed lovers from warring families in You Against Me. Mikey’s sister is accusing Ellie’s brother of rape, and even after Ellie discovers Mikey’s true identity as the brother of the girl tearing her family apart, they begin an intense clandestine relationship. Their feelings mount to an intoxicating point, made even more so by the complexity of their situation. But the draw here isn’t the prohibited romance alone: Downham’s accomplishment is that she makes the reader step back from the conflict and invest instead in Mikey and Ellie’s united experience in dealing with its effects; despite their opposing familial loyalties she positions them as comrades, so their forbidden love never feels salacious.
An even darker breed of sad love story is the kind in which love just isn’t enough. Recovery Road is a story of first love, but it’s more a story about healing, growing, and loving oneself. Maddie and Stewart meet in the fragile environment of rehab, and their relationship starts out rapidly and lustfully, turning obsessive and dependent. Author Blake Nelson has their flame cool down naturally and shifts the focus of his novel to Maddie’s burgeoning self-reliance and emotional wisdom. Near book’s end, they have a heartbreaking run-in after Stewart has fallen back into addiction, and Maddie realizes that there’s nothing she can do to save him. Nelson uses his characters’ relationship to exemplify that love alone is never enough to save a person from himself, but also reminds us of love’s influence on who we become, even after moving on: “You don’t see those moments coming, you don’t know it when they’re happening, but later…you realize how important they were. You understand who really changed you, who made you what you are.”
Possibly the most important thing to remember about young love is that it doesn’t always last. There are great romances, but there are also great breakups, and Why We Broke Up is in the latter category. Min recounts her whirlwind relationship with Ed by rehashing tiny moments of their love via a box of memorabilia — a protractor, an empty book of matches, a condom wrapper — that she’s returning to him on his doorstep (with a denunciative “thunk”). Min’s perspective on exactly what went wrong is brilliant: we immediately, but increasingly with every chapter, understand why they broke up, and also why the relationship developed and unfolded the way it did. Most important to the success of a breakup story is not only our understanding of the disintegration but also of the love (however flawed) that came first. And of course, in author Daniel Handler’s case, that we’re convinced of the rightness of Min and Ed’s breakup helps, too.
Though these books are very different, they all take place in the world as we know it with characters that could be any of us. As in the real world, love can take on many shapes. A good romance can be ordinary or extraordinary, uplifting or heartbreaking, sexy or innocent, comfortably formulaic or unusual. But it should always be relatable: readers need to recognize their own romances (or tragedies) and find their experiences validated. In presenting these familiar situations, a good love story manages to broach unfamiliar territory and allows readers to view love anew.
Good YA Love Stories
What Happened to Goodbye (Viking, 2011) by Sarah Dessen
You Against Me (Fickling/Random, 2011) by Jenny Downham
My Life Next Door (Dial, 2012) by Huntley Fitzpatrick
The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012) by John Green
Stay with Me (Dial, 2011) by Paul Griffin
Why We Broke Up (Little, Brown, 2011) by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman
The Big Crunch (Scholastic, 2011) by Pete Hautman
Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, 2012) by A. S. King
Recovery Road (Scholastic, 2011) by Blake Nelson
The Sky Is Everywhere (Dial, 2010) by Jandy Nelson
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon, 2012) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Past Perfect (Simon Pulse, 2011) by Leila Sales
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (Poppy/Little, Brown, 2012) by Jennifer E. Smith
From the May/June 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.