YA Review: WHAT HAPPENS NOW by Jennifer Castle

What Happens Now is a novel that calls upon its title several times throughout the text: not in a gimmicky way, but in a way few YA romances dare to, in pushing the boundaries of love at first sight and summer flings to find what happens after the honeymoon stage, and when two teens truly get to know one another. Told during the aftermath of protagonist Ari’s experience with self-harm and ongoing battle with depression, What Happens Now explores the ways in which we know and un-know ourselves and others as we confront the truth beyond fantasy, and the imperfections beyond the exterior.

Split between “last summer” and “this summer,” the novel not only builds off of the past but rewrites it as Ari relearns her identity and has to separate fantasy from truth as she grows closer to the her love interest, Camden. This “knowing and unknowing” subverts many YA tropes; Camden is a dreamboat in the first section of the novel, handsome and dashing from afar, and Ari is haunted by a complicated past yet quiet and restrained when exposing the affects the past has on her present. The novel almost seems to shift from commercial to literary fiction as readers enter part two and replace the imagined versions of Ari and Camden with the raw, uncensored idiosyncrasies that make these characters human and true.

The novel employs a self-aware, meta approach through Ari and her friends’ obsession with cosplaying a fictional TV series, Silver Arrow. As the characters embody their favorite fictional heroes while adorned in costume, they maintain walls around their true selves. When Ari removes her cosplay jacket in Camden’s bed, she notes that “it felt strange to shed that layer, even though I still had the purple tunic and white top underneath.” Her gradual undressing mirrors the shedding of external layers as well; the novel is built on this stripping of facades and projection. Later in the scene Ari and Camden get in their first fight, when Ari reveals she pined after Camden the previous summer. Ari fears she went “one truth too far,” and Camden points out that he is not the person she thought she was – that he never will be. Drawing upon the novel’s structure (split between the then and the now) Castle argues that getting to know oneself and others is a way of replacing what we thought was true: “knowing and unknowing.” With the addition of the cosplay, she ties plot into this theme while still driving her point home.

Yet while the romance between Ari and Camden the novel’s hook, its true heart lies within the complicated relationship between Ari and her mother. This relationship also has a then vs. now dichotomy: when Mom and Ari watched Silver Arrow together when she was young, vs the present where her mother rarely sees or hears her and is more demanding than loving. Their dialogue is riddled with tension, driven by what is left unsaid. Even the mention of Ari’s mother brings conflict to the page, made more complicated than the suffocated love that exists between the two. Even when Ari finds pleasure in fighting back, she feels her mother’s pain (not just her own) when they fight. This empathy allows for a moving, tear-jerking ending when (view spoiler) and, instead, finds a heart-wrenching note from her mother, who has kept quiet about her own struggle with depression.

Although at times the Silver Arrow narrative can bog down the novel’s pace, What Happens Now ends with true emotion, poignancy, and hope. In many other novels, (view spoiler) may have seemed cliché, like a bow slapped on a present as an afterthought. Yet this ending still rings true to the novel’s core: that believing in oneself and “the Possible” doesn’t mean projecting only one’s best parts, but the courage to ask “what happens now” after confronting the darkest parts of our past and our hearts.

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