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'Bookishly Ever After' is a YA novel that entertains – and then challenges

For high school geek Phoebe, real life can’t possibly measure up to bestselling fiction. What happens if she fails at her first attempt at romance outside a book?

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    Bookishly Ever After
    By Isabel Bandeira
    Spencer Hill Press
    350 pp.
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Every once in a while, I run across a book with multiple personalities. The first read-through is light, adorable, and harmless. Yet the post-read marination period reveals a second side, with deeper struggles and more critical introspection than I realized.

Bookishly Ever After, the young adult debut from Isabel Bandeira, is just such a Janusian novel. Please don’t mistake my meaning: I loved reading it and I absolutely recommend it! But I finished in a strikingly different place than I started, and there are crucial reasons why.

Phoebe Martins is an ardent bibliophile, knitting enthusiast, band member, and recreational archer. Her senior year is ticking along nicely until her friends tell her that Dev, clarinet section Adonis, might like her.

Poor Phoebe’s romantic dreams are yanked from her literary love interests and placed on the cafeteria table for dissection. Does she like Dev? Are they each other’s type? What should she do? Though her crush begins as mere velleity, her friends’ obsessive interest contorts it into awkward action.

You see, Phoebe’s tastes run to fictional dreamboats, strong-chinned gallants with perfectly-timed banter and the tremulous sensitivity of Romantic poets. Real life can’t possibly measure up to bestselling fiction. What happens if she fails?

She laments, “Before all of this, my life was perfect. I had my book boyfriends and it was enough for me to read and dream about these guys because they weren’t real. I’m so scared I can’t go back to that. I’m afraid that maybe reality ruined me for fiction.”

In a panic, she turns to her friends (both real and fictional) for advice and a total makeover. It’s a delightful, albeit bumpy, ride as this self-confessed book geek tries to fuse life with literature.

There’s so much to love in “Bookishly Ever After.” Bandeira pairs reality and fiction beautifully, interspersing the main plot with annotated excerpts from Phoebe’s beloved YA books. (By the way, little does Bandeira realize that in so doing, she’s signed herself up to write those books for real! Several readers I know would be all over them, especially those who enjoyed the zippy texture of Meg Cabot’s “Mediator” series.)

For high school me, Phoebe would have been my spirit animal. The band devotion! The Celtic infatuation! (I blame Riverdance.) The total oblivion to guys crushing on me! And, more pressingly, the lack of self-confidence, contrasted with the indubitable assurance of my friends.

It’s all too real, and maybe that’s why I had such a strong reaction to it. Beneath this wonderfully cute, funny tale are some troubling undertones that deserve discussion.

For me, the real story in “Bookishly Ever After” is the powerful effect one’s friends can have, for good or bad. Phoebe’s many strengths don’t include spinal fortitude, which her friends have in spades.

Consider:

  1. She didn’t have any feelings for Dev, until her bestie told her to.
  2. She didn’t have a problem with her hair or clothing, until her friends told her she should.
  3. And [heads up, mild but obvious spoiler] when Phoebe and Dev do get together, those same friends make fun of them immediately – despite the relationship being their idea entirely.

It isn’t until she’s away from them for a week that Phoebe comes to herself with the greatest honesty, bravery, and peace.

Her least toxic friend is gay cheerleader Grace, who’s in charge of the physical makeover portion. She cautions Phoebe, “Well-meaning people are going to always try to butt into your life and make you fit their idea of what’s best. Believe me, I know. But if you try to make everyone else happy, you’re going to end up miserable.”

It’s important advice, but too little, too late from the girl actively razing and rebuilding her friend’s image. A makeover is a challenging plot device – if your heroine triumphs, it’s at best a Pyrrhic victory because she loses some of herself along the way.

One thing Phoebe keeps is her klutziness. Hasn’t the “clumsy bookworm” trope played itself out? We’re all aware of it and, frankly, over it. With her archery background, Phoebe’s gracelessness rings hollow from cover to cover.

The last concern was, for me, the strongest. It’s well documented that humans like to classify things into clear, safe, “us vs. them” categories. The “Bookishly Ever After” cast is deep in the throes of it, as are most teens. They think, “If I sort the world into black-and-white labels, I’ll know who I am and how to act.”

Yet Phoebe and her friends’ classification repartée is so frequent and intense that it seems almost savage. They hurl “geek,” “nerd,” and “freak” at each other with the same passive-aggressive vehemence that the Plastics of “Mean Girls” call each other “slut” and “whore.”

I love Phoebe’s unabashed ardor for her hobbies. I can’t stand that her best buds tease her about them every day, and I can’t believe Phoebe needles them right back. This may be accurate for modern teens, but I struggle with its presence in a fictional setting, wherein negativity is only included by design.

Geeks and nerds should be the last to judge or insult, as we’re the ones teased the most. Easy for me to say, since perspective and reevaluation don’t often arrive until adulthood, when it’s too late. Still, the misconception that tearing others down makes you look good isn’t confined to youth. The lessons in this book aren’t just for teens.

My fervent hope for the “Ever After” series is that Phoebe’s senior year and subsequent summer contain more self-reflection and compassion, not only for her but her friends as well. Bandeira’s talent is so obvious, and her characters so vitally unique, that the series holds too much promise to write off after Book One.

A deceptively important novel, “Bookishly Ever After” is lively and pivotal. You won’t find great social crises or powerful commentary on the state of mankind, but you’ll run face-first into your own teen self. The reflections and decisions arising from that encounter may be just as important as the most solemn nonfiction on the shelves today.

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