At the Willing School, Ella is practically invisible. Ella has her best friends (Frankie and Sadie), her art (she’s actually pretty talented), and her obsession with a 19th century painter named Edward Willing (the namesake of her prestigious school). The fact that the rest of the school pretty much ignores her is fine for the most part–except when it comes to her real-life crush on golden-boy Alex Bainbridge. Things take a turn for the unexpected when Alex begins tutoring her in French, and their relationship heats up. But can someone so invisible end up with someone who’s so completely in the spotlight?
Perhaps the biggest problem with Melissa Jensen’s smart, quirky contemporary YA story is its tagline: “Pretty in Pink meets Anna and the French Kiss in this charming romantic comedy.” This reviewer isn’t sure who wrote the copy for this book, but they should have pumped the brakes on that one. By comparing this novel to a movie and a book that have become iconic (albeit one much more recently), it’s been set up for failure before it even begins. Which is a shame, because while the novel doesn’t have much to do with either of those titles, it is an engaging, witty, frequently very sweet look at first love, self-discovery, and the journey to figuring stuff out. This is a great read, and worthy of a reader’s time–with or without the ridiculous comparisons.
Jensen’s novel is about first love, to be sure. Ella has thrown herself into an imagined relationship with Edward Willing because he’s a safe option–he’s been dead for over a hundred years. Her obsession with him has grown to the point where she’s doing her research project on his life, and as she discovers more about his past, she also discovers more about herself. Ella is remarkably well-drawn, and while some readers will grow tired of her timidity, there is never a moment where she feels inauthentic. Jensen takes care to develop her voice, and her narration helps propel the story forward.
Equally engaging are her two best friends, rich-girl Sadie and out-and-proud Frankie. What Jensen excels at here is creating relationships between the three friends that feel real and flawed. Everything is not hunky-dory, but these characters know each other and love each other and get mad at each other, the way that friends do. It’s exceedingly well done, and the scenes where the three are together (especially in the karaoke bar) are some of the book’s strongest.
The novel’s weakest aspect has to do with the lengthy passages about Edward Willing’s life and work. While it’s clear what Jensen was trying to do with these alternating chapters, it doesn’t quite work. Instead of helping add dimension to the novel’s characters, these sections dragged down the narrative and slowed the plot. These passages are likely to frustrate most readers, and the novel would have flowed much more smoothy if these sections had been shortened or excised completely.
That being said, this is a completely charming contemporary YA novel about self-discovery, love and truth. Very sweet, very funny, and absolutely engaging, this is one to recommend to all fans of contemporary YA. Highly recommended.
The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen. Speak: 2012. Library copy.