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Girl Meets Boy, Boy Stalks Girl (Book Review: Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder)

This will not be your ordinary book review, because I need to talk to you about not only my thoughts as a librarian, but as a reader.  Read the whole review, because this was quite the reading journey and my initial reaction changed drastically as I read on.

If you follow me on Twitter (@tlt16), you know that I initially wanted to throw this book across the room and walk away.  You see, Falling for You is the story of Rae.  Rae comes from an extremely dysfunctional home but is presented as a strong, though guarded, young woman.  Then she meets Nathan, the new boy in school.  Nathan is intense, alarming. From day 1, Nathan sends alarm signals to those in the know; getting into a relationship with Nathan is a really bad idea – and Rae seems too smart for that (edited to add: please see the great discussion in the comments where I clarify this statement).  This was my initial Tweet:

The very next day, Nathan and Rae are eating pizza.  “A supreme?”, he asks.  But no, Rae doesn’t like onions.  “You can just pick them off,” Nathan replies.  He dominates the conversation.  He kisses. A lot.  He suggests she deletes all the other guys out of her cell phone.  He pressures her, often, to have sex in ways that are emotionally manipulative and sometimes terrifying.  I hated Nathan, but then you’re supposed to.  But more importantly, it didn’t seem like Rae was the type of girl to fall into this trap.  It seemed like really inconsistent character writing.

So, I was torn.  But then Heather, who is reviewing this title for Booklist so look for her review, told me to keep reading it.  I respect Heather, her opinion, so read on I did. And I AM SO GLAD THAT I LISTENED TO HER. Why?

See, Rae tells her friends that she is worried by Nathan’s behavior.  And, as it devolves into scary stalker soon to be abusive territory, her friends see it too and back her up.  For once, we have a strong though flawed teenage girl noticing the signs of an abusive relationship and trying to get herself out of the situation.  What a powerful message to girls, you can get out.  We know that statistically most girls will leave something like 7 times before they leave for the last time, Rae does slip at one point.  We also know that leaving an abusive relationship is one of the most dangerous times for women because these types of men don’t like losing control.  But that particular fact isn’t really shown in Rae’s relationship with Nathan, but in her mom’s relationship with her stepfather Dean.  An entirely different plot point, an equally heartbreaking.  Rae’s mom makes a revealation that very realistically depicts domestic violence.

A Rae of Sunshine

Although the cover sells it that way, Falling for You is not really simply a book about obsessive love.  Falling for You is really the story of Rae, a young girl trying to find herself and find happiness in a world that has definitely dealt her a crappy hand.  Rae is a realistic teenage girl; she is me, she is the girl you pass in the hallways at school. Even while her mother ignores her and her stepfather spirals out of control, there are people in her life that genuinely love and support her.  In fact, one of the closing themes of Falling for You is the idea of family: 

As I took it all in, three pairs of eyes reached out to me. And what I saw in my friends’ faces surprised me. . . And in that moment, I realized family isn’t necessarily who you live with. (page 339)

A Kindness Revolution with a Dab of Poetry

I won’t get into the details, but another significant part of the story are some random acts of kindness that an anonymous person sends Rae on through her job at a florist.  While making deliveries, Rae meets various strangers who touch her life in a variety of ways.  At the same time, Rae begins sharing her poetry in the school newspaper.  Although she does so at first anonymously, she eventually chooses to put her name on her poems and encourages her fellow students to be open about who they really are.  There is some great discussion here about how the social expectation has come to be that we must always be “on”, and in those moments of dishonesty, we rob ourselves of the chance to truly connect with one another.  The message is sometimes preachy, but it is spot on and important.

In the End, I Shed Tears

Falling for You turned out to be such an uplifting story, inspiring.  What at first seemed like inconsistent character issues turned out to be a compelling arc of a young woman coming into her own.  And I was thankful for those moments of insight that Rae shared, those moments where she recognized her neediness and questioned what she was doing.  Rae was strong but flawed, a very realistic depiction.  Rae is relateable.  Rae is real.

The Storytelling

I want to take a moment to share one other element that I think made this a strong story; because, although at the times the story gets preachy, it has a strong storytelling style that keeps you invested.  We begin with a very vague scene in the hospital, where you realize that something has happened to someone, something horrible and tragic.  Then the book itself is divided into sections: 5 months before, 4 months before, 3 months before, 1 month before, the day before.  In between each section is another ominous hospital scene.  You know something bad has happened, but you have no idea what.  At the same time, you see the elements of both Rae’s relationship with Nathan and her stepfather spiraling out of control.  Either one of them is a candidate for having done something to Rae, and you want to know what happened and who did it.  It is a very taut stortytelling mechanism, it keeps readers turning the page.

And Then There Was Leo

There are several rays of light in Rae’s life, but one of my favorites is her friend Leo.  Leo is, simply stated, a good guy.  He’s the type of guy you want your teens to date (if they must date – can’t they wait until they’re 30 LOL).  He isn’t shiny and dazzling and perfect.  He is real. A lot of times the boys in teen fiction are “hot” and “swoony”, setting some unrealistic expectations in readers and setting up guy readers to make unrealistic self comparisons.  I wonder often how these depictions of guys must make readers feel about themselves just like I wonder how some of the covers make girls feel about themselves.  And then there was Leo, the perfect guy not because he is in fact perfect, but because he is perfectly real and perfectly nice.

This was my final Tweet:

There are a lot of elements to this book, and in the end they come together to inspire.  I am pretty sure at the end my heart grew 3 sizes, Grinchlike.  And on a personal note, I loved Rae’s obsession with the Foo Fighters (who rock!), her love of poetry (there are poems scattered throughout), and the fact that books and libraries are mentioned in positive ways.  Falling for You is not perfect, but in the end it is perfectly heartwarming.  In the midst of the pages there is also a simply wonderful love story, it’s just a bumpy road for Rae to get there.  People online seem to be having very mixed and strong reactions, as I definitely did in the beginning, but your teens will LOVE this book.  I think this is a really important, inspiring books that we need in our collections.  And the cover rocks, teens will check it out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder. Published in January 2013 by Simon Pulse. ISBN: 978-1-4424-6121-5.

Comments

  1. Thanks for your insights! Makes me want to read this and keep going, for sure.

  2. Wow, this sounds like quite the reading experience. I've been hearing good things about this book and want to read it. It sounds like it deals with an important issue in a respectful, complex manner. Have you read Stay by Deb Caletti? It sounds like Falling for You is very similar. I read it last year and really really enjoyed it.

    I'd like to respectfully challenge/debate, as a friend, your idea that “Rae seemed too smart” for getting into an abusive/dangerous relationship, and that it was out of character. This idea I think contributes to the silence around domestic violence – for example, many feminists who have experienced domestic violence keep silent because of shame and humiliation — they certainly knew the signs, and if they had been advocates against domestic violence, then it seems they would be least likely to fall into an abusive relationship, right? So I'd argue that no one is too smart, too educated, etc. to find themselves in an abusive relationship. While I haven't read Falling for You obviously, it sounds from your review that her stepfather was also abusive. Rae entering into an abusive/controlling relationship could then be a continuation of the effects of the cycle of violence, as children who have been abused or experienced abuse are more likely to find themselves in abusive relationships when they are older, sadly.

    So is it then ever out of character for a character to be in an abusive relationship? I mean, I guess if it appeared out of nowhere with no context, etc., maybe?

    I'd love to know what your thoughts are and continue this discussion :)

  3. Rachelia, so glad you commented. Perhaps too smart was the wrong word choice. Let me try and explain my thoughts.

    In most depictions of domestic abuse situations, the man is portrayed as a smooth operator, he woos the woman and slowly, insidiously takes over. It is a subtle manipulation that first lays the groundwork and then sweeps the rug away, often tiny piece by tiny piece, and women don't realize what is happening until they are more emotionally involved.

    That is not the case with Nathan at all. He comes in and every action he does from moment one screams controlling and abusive. It is not subtle. Within the first few minutes of meeting Rae he tells her they are going to go on a date and that she will meet him tomorrow someplace at the time appointed. It's not smooth, it's not charming – it is offensive and off putting. There seems to be no reason for any girl to even want to say yes and actually show up for that first date. Then comes the date, where he exhibits more of the same behavior. From the get go Nathan's character is over the top classic abuser. There is no subtlety, no surprises. And the attraction didn't seem real or authentic. I believe that Schroeder rushed through the develoment stage of the relationship to get to the story, and in rushing through that stage there was little initial buy-in.

    (part 1)

  4. And then there is Rae, a much more self aware and at times confident than typical teen. She implores her mother several times to leave her stepfather. She is very much aware of unhealthy relationships and is actively seeking a way out. So her getting sucked into the relationship with Nathan was incongrous to the character as she was written in those few first dates.

    But then, as I said, Rae herself starts to talk about the issues in the relationship and it makes sense again inside her character. As for people being too ashamed to speak openly about their lives, well, that is also one of the themes in this book that I mentioned. Rae has hidden the truth of her home life from all of her friends, and part of her blossoming happens when she starts to be honest and encourages her fellow classmates to be honest about the struggles that they have in life, their vulnerabilities.

    In comparison, when you read books like Dreamland by Sarah Dessen, which are about abusive relationships, there is more development so they read more beliavable. Falling for You is not really a book about an abusive relationship per se, it is the story of Rae who happens to spend some time in an abusive relationship. It is a subtle but distinct difference.

    I would argue though that there is value in education and in making sure that all people know the signs of an abusive relationship. Knowing the signs can help all people entering into relationships to be aware of red flags, to trust their instincts when things strike them as wrong in a relationship, to stop a relationship or not enter into one if they see those red flags. I have had people come in and do healthy relationship workshops with teens and part of their mission was to make sure that all teens knew the signs for themselves and to help call out friends if they saw it happening around them. Education is a huge key component in helping women of all ages. There are other issues involved, of course, also touched on as Rae talks about just the neediness she feels inside her, the desire to be special to someone, to be loved. And I think that was very realistically depicted.

    I think that no one ever need be ashamed of the things that other people do to them. And sharing your story and speaking out helps to educate others. This is part of the reason that I speak openly about my experiences with HG, it is also the reason that I very actively work to educate about domestic violence, crimes against women, street harassment and more.

    This is the longest reply to a comment ever, but I think what I am trying to say is that the first few encounters between Nathan and Rae weren't developed well but if you read past those encounters it all makes sense. And I don't disagree with anything you said in your comment.

  5. Ahh, Nathan's immediate controlling behavior does sound unrealistic, and I understand what you mean now about it not being subtle and unusual that Rae would agree to a date. It certainly does sound like a development problem, unfortunately. On a separate note it does seem like there is still this trend/rise in glamorizing controlling boyfriends and unhealthy relationships: from Twilight to Beautiful Disaster, etc. I'm glad that this is not the case in Falling for You at least!!

    I like how you distinguished between a story about abusive relationships versus a story with a character who spends time in an abusive relationship. As much as I love “issue” books (YA Saves!) it is important to not define people or characters by their experiences, or identity, etc. This discussion is making me want to read the book more and more :)

    Oh, and I hope I didn't come across as diminishing the importance of education in working to reduce violence against women. Education can do wonders, and knowing the red flags is very important. I've even helped create such programs, pilot test them, and I'm currently working as a volunteer with YWCA Canada who believes strongly in education. In regards to education, I just meant that we, as a society, cannot allow the fact that a woman has been educated on domestic violence be used to shame her for her experiences, if that makes sense. I get so passionate about issues like this and then sometimes have a hard time expressing myself. Just like how writing a review for a book you loved is hard, you know?

    Educating and sharing one's experience has been a big part of feminist movements, and are integral for advocating for any issue. I know personally I have learned a lot about HG from your posts, and was recently able to help educate others when the newspapers in the UK (and around the world) were all Ohhh, isn't that cute? Duchess Kate is pregnant and has a bout of morning sickness. UM, NO it's a serious issue. & I learned that from you – so keep on keeping on!

    Thanks for clearing things up regarding your comments, and seriously, discussions like this where we can debate, analyze and discuss in depth in a respectful way are why I began blogging and also why I keep coming back to Teen Librarian Toolbox :)

  6. The ways relationships are depicted in teen literature is a topic that I am especially sensitive about. I think teen readers are so vulnerable because they are really at a formative place, beginning to think about relationships and what they should look like. And we know that literature, that words and story, have the power to shape and mold the things we think and feel, the choices we make. Like you, I am concerned about the types of relationships depicted and how there is no there in the lives of the books saying THIS IS NOT HEALTHY, YOU DESERVE BETTER THAN THIS. Which is one of the reasons that I ended up LOVING Falling for You. Rae says to herself, this is not healthy. She says to her friend, I am scared and her friend says, I am too. And then the relationship with Leo blooms. A great contrast in healthy and unhealthy. So while I did have problems with the development of that very first part, I think this book has so much to offer teen readers. I don't want teen readers to see the intensity of Nathan and swoon, I want them to see the intensity of Nathan and hear alarm bells – which I think they will.

  7. I'll agree that the development did seem a little rushed, but I think the author put a few things in there that kept it from being an insta-love situation. Rae had never dated before, and was second guessing herself a lot at first, asking, “Is this just how guys are? Maybe I just don't get how this all works,” a few times. Also, her friends are very encouraging of her relationship with Nathan. They're the “It” couple at school, and Rae likes how it feels to walk down the hall holding his hand and seeing other people's reactions. Another aspect that I don't think was mentioned much was that the cycle of abuse happens on both sides. Nathan's parents are depicted as having a pretty tumultuous relationship too, and his father is a famous author that Rae holds out some hope of meeting at the start of their relationship. I also think it's valuable to see that although Rae knows her mom is in an unhealthy relationship, it's hard for her to recognize that she is making similar mistakes at first, and that the extrication process is not cut and dry.

    On a positive note, I LOVED her flower shop family! Such nice characters there.

  8. I also LOVED her flower shop family. And I think this book is a great read for teens in showing the contrast between healthy and unhealthy relationships. I definitely, definitely recommend this book.

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