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.

A Reflection on my MFA Decision

Below is a personal reflection essay I wrote for The English Update before graduation, reflecting on the difficult MFA application process and even more difficult decision process.

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Learning to Let Go: A Graduation Story

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about my graduation anxieties, about leaving an entire life of people and spaces I once considered to be mine. I don’t have a coping formula, but I may be on to something decent. The original post can be found here.

Even with college coming to a close, I’m still in denial that my time at BSU has an end-date. I’ve spent the last few weeks drifting in and out of varying states of mind (and let’s be honest, emotions) pertaining to my graduation ceremony and, afterward, post-grad life.

But I’ll save my talks about career and future anxieties for another post. For now, I’d like to talk about the feeling of leaving this place behind, because that is the first step to entering the new world beyond BSU. So here are some anxieties I’ve experienced the past few weeks directly related to campus life, and how I’m attempting to manage them.

I’ll never see my friends again

It’s something we don’t seriously talk about, but that hovers over us in these last weeks, and slips its way into conversations late at night after a few or between jokes, cushioned by the casual tone of banter. My coworkers joke that they wish they could keep me and carry me on their shoulders, like a Good Angel, after I graduate. But the joke hides some truth that no matter how hard we try to keep in touch, some part of this relationship will be lost. I will not be there for all the mundane, silly moments at work. Dropping in and out of their lives now and again will not be the same as the day-in-day-out we’ve experienced together the past few years.

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Weekly meet-ups at Acoustic Night, sitting in my friend’s campus apartment cooking cheap food, being able to manage multiple meet-ups and hangouts within one day…I’m not in denial that these things will be gone. But that doesn’t mean the people will be gone, or that new moments with them don’t await.

This doesn’t mean things will be the same. They will be different, but new memories can be made in new times and spaces. Not all the people I treasure right now will remain in my life, but the ones who I seriously care about, and who seriously care about me, will. I am still in-touch with my lifelong best friend and all my best friends from high school. I know I can do this, because I have. If you are not someone who keeps in touch with people well, think closely about who you are leaving behind. If someone doesn’t make that list, fight for them. These people will continue living after graduation, and we can still be a part of their lives if we pick up and the phone and try.

This world is moving on without me

Feeling inconsequential in a world that once depended on me is not a great experience. But after the unveiling of The Bridge last week, I realized it was, in fact, my last Bridge. After I leave, some new English major will take my podium as Editor-in-Chief, and probably do an amazing good job of it. The Writing Studio, my second-home the past two years, will hire amazing new consultants and although my coworkers say they want me to visit next year, I’ll be like a strange phantom lingering between consultations, recognized by barely half of the remaining staff.

But I will leave behind a physical copy of each of the volumes of The Bridge I worked on, and new volumes will not erase that. I have, somehow, left a footprint on this campus that cannot be erased by time. My Writing Studio clients and regulars will graduate and my photo will be moved from the white board and into the photo graveyard in our supplies cabinet. Still, the students I worked with as well as my coworkers and I will carry our stories and our laughter with us no matter how far behind BSU seems.

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So no, it’s not a great feeling to leave, or to see how easily some other passionate academic can replace me. But I did exist here in my time, and that time…that mark, will always exist.

Then I realized…

Before my final Honors Dinner, I laid down on a bench in RCC with my girlfriend. Bastielle’s Icarus echoed off the high ceilings and as we chatted, I watched the quiet room around me and realized that upon graduation, I’d physically be leaving this place behind, each nook and cranny of this campus. This physical home of mine, each step I’d taken for granted on my daily commutes, would no longer be a part of my life. Even this small space in RCC, where I could lie and listen to music while waiting to attend an event, would no longer be my own.

But a building is just a building, I realized, unless I am there. To each person who walked through RCC, or any other part of campus, the space around them only matters so long as they are there, interacting with it, and bringing their own thoughts, feelings, and actions into it. RCC was not an active part of that quiet moment of mine. The talks, the setting, and music: it was all me. And I will bring me wherever I go, to whatever new space I will fill, and make that space my own. My home.

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And I realized, for the first time, that wherever I end up, I will be okay. I have loved my time at Bridgewater, but that is because this place allowed me to be me, and to figure out who that was. Now, I will take that person with me wherever I go in life. And because of that, I will be okay.

I will miss BSU, but the moments I’ve shared here will not stop existing once I leave, and the things I love about my life and lifestyle will not stop just because I move. My life is not ending, nor is it in any cliche way “just beginning.” It is continuing.

We will be okay.