Page 45 Review by Stephen
Exquisitely beautiful and wickedly funny, yet in places so poignant it's painful!
It's also my Book of the Year.
I've an infamous habit of declaring this as early as February or March. This year, therefore (it being May), I'm feeling reasonably restrained, and never more confident in my life.
That's partly because I'm not 17-year-old Freddy Riley, writing here to an online columnist called Anna Vice:
"For almost the past year I've been in love with a girl named Laura Dean.
"Which is the hardest thing I've ever been."
Now, why would that be?
Is it because Laura's a young lady and so is Freddy? No, not at all, because Berkeley, California, is as effortlessly enlightened as you like, as is the high school that they're both attending. Idyllically so! Plus Freddy has plenty of friends to look after her, like Doodle and cool couple Buddy and Eric.
Is it because poor love-struck Freddy can only swoon in the shadows from afar, her love unrequited, unacknowledged? No, it's not that: the couple are fully fledged girlfriends!
Is it because Laura's a fractious outcast, then, angry at a world which chooses to shun her? Nope, it's most definitely not that, for Laura Dean is deliciously chic, deliriously up-tempo, and comports herself confidently with such natural charisma that wherever she wanders a crowd quickly gathers round her of equally exuberant and up-for-it acolytes. Laura has what you'd call presence!
She also has what you'd call absence.
"Because Laura Dean...
"Keeps breaking up with me."
And it's the way in which she does it that's the killer, quite often during holiday celebrations by getting off with another girl, in public, and allowing herself to be seen, so signalling their split that way. Nice! Then she responds to Freddy's texted heartbreak with such cheerful affection that it's almost impossible to argue.
"Don't be mad.
And Freddy doesn't argue, especially when she's asked back - charmingly, disarmingly - much to the growing dismay of her mates. They've seen the damage done to their tearful friend's mental well being and reputation after she barfs up drunkenly in Doris' Donuts (and indeed upon Doris's donuts!) right in front of the cafe's seen-it-all stoical and surprisingly forgiving waitress, Vi. You'll like Vi.
But no, Laura will suddenly reappear out of nowhere, radiant, unapologetic, proffering no explanation, reclining on steps leading up to a veranda, perfectly at ease with her phone, herself and her geographical location.
"Fancy meeting you here."
"At my house."
You've got to admire her chutzpah! And it works, every time.
We're treated to nearly 300 pages of dreamy, idle-afternoon highs as well as lightning-bolt shocks that will knock your socks off, because LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME is one of those "There but for the grace of God, go I" graphic novels. I thought I'd gone through the emotional teenage wringer, but I'm not feeling half so badly done to now!
In so many ways this reminds me of Sarah Burgess's THE SUMMER OF BLAKE SINCLAIR (we really need to see the second and third volumes back in print, someone) and you may already know Mariko Tamaki from the bilberry blue book of huge empathy and understanding towards young girls on holiday in THIS ONE SUMMER, and the equally reflective, meet-yourself LUISA, NOW AND THEN, plus SKIM which is back in stock now! The behavioural observation in each is as astute as it is here, but LAURA DEAN packs more of a tumultuous punch. Almost everyone here is going to experience some degree of heartache and heartbreak, whether it's the 'Sense And Sensibility' conflict between being open and honest - uncompromisingly so - or a little more considerate towards others' sensitivities, the careless neglect or relegation of a friend (file under 'learned behaviour') or the sheer bewilderment of being invited to what you'd supposed was an intimate evening to enhance reconciliation, only to discover it's a full-blown, Bacchic party with the wild set , and then being given the lose / lose option of staying or leaving, entirely up to you because your girlfriend honestly (no, honestly!) doesn't care either way.
Rosemary Valero-O'Connell is a complete revelation to me. The cover's a stunner but the insides are every bit as passionate, gentle, delicate and nuanced on page after page after page. The hands held or touching tentatively and tenderly are just-so, and the eye-shut smiles of blissful delight are as perfectly perceived and rendered whether they're during a shared confidence or basking in the exuberant affection of friends. The fashions too are fab - Berkeley's no inhibitor of individuality - and I especially adored Vi's luxurious, bleached-white curls of thick hair, small eyeball earrings, bracelet, mini-skirt and snake-coiled black summer top as she sits down with Freddy for a thankfully barf-free coffee and catch-up. They bond so soon in their friendship through what have already become self-effacing, shared, running jokes. Vi goes first.
"Oh right! Shit I forgot. So, uh, things are... still crappy?"
"I can't even talk about it because everyone's so sick of hearing about it."
"Yeah, but you don't know me, so it's okay. And we've already established I'm overly familiar with new people."
"Yeah, still. I don't know. I just worked my way back from Random Puker. I don't know if I'm quite ready to be Desperate Girlfriend."
I love the way Freddy plays with her hair there. Throughout, the body language is exquisite. Have I used the word "exquisite" already? I won't apologise; it's one of those books where it's completely unavoidable. I'd even apply it to the speech balloon placement and the lettering within, especially all the slightly taller 'k's.
So let's talk foliage and shadow. Berkeley appears to be well lush. You'll find pots of fronds by all the front doors under shady awnings, sprays of large waxy leaves in the cafe courtyards, virile climbers crawling up metal mesh fences, and blooms abounding even within wall-mounted picture frames. Outside almost every window, even at school, tall bushy trees can be seen. Speaking of windows, some of the backlit panels cast a pall over those who aren't faring so well, whereas the arrival of some characters casts shadows over others, figuratively and otherwise. The mood control is very precise and highly evocative and so effective.
I haven't delved deeply into the supporting (and desperate-to-be-supportive) cast because I want you to discover them for yourselves. I wish Freddy would. In a world where everyone's checking their mobile every two seconds in lieu of living in the moment, here's cell-phone-free Doodle ("modern technology will be the end of us all") with an anecdote entirely irrelevant to Freddy's cyclical predicament, honest-to-god.
"So there was this guy? In Ohio? And he thought he was locked in the house? So he axed a hole in his door. The cops came and they said the door was unlocked..."
"The whole time."
"The door was unlocked the whole time."
Doodle, Buddy and Eric are no mere chorus, but fully realised individuals who will, I promise you, surprise. One revelation in particular threw me so completely because I'd made wholly unwarranted presumptions about an alternative revelation which I thought I'd seen coming, so I can also assure you that this is all far from obvious.
And this is important: if Laura had been constructed as a destructive, manipulative nightmare, consciously messing with Freddy's heart and mind for the sheer satisfaction of it - to do wanton damage to see if she could get away with it and so boost her own ego (and I've known some) - then okay, you might be rooting for Freddy all the same, desperate for her to see what's not just staring her in the face, but slapping it too, and for Freddy to extricate herself as soon as possible from all that cruel abuse. But this is more complex, for that's not who Laura is. It's not that her behaviour is calculated to hurt at all; she's simply oblivious to any pain that her own genuinely carefree, attach-less attitude causes. And it always works out for her. She's never been turned down.
Hmmm. Come to think of it, I do recall some of my own friends' advice, very kindly meant, which I too completely ignored because I was smitten.
As my duly declared book of 2019, this is fervently recommended to fans of Tillie Walden (I LOVE THIS PART etc - and I'm talking in terms of the visuals as well as sexuality), all previous Mariko and Jillian Tamaki outings, BLOOM, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR, and to any Young Adult - gay or straight - as confused as I was by the complexities of romance that may well be soon be heading your way or already troubling you today.
Killer punchline too, reprising what went before.
You may find yourself punching the air.