Book Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
Author Stephanie Perkins has done it again! Her first novel, Anna and the French Kiss (reviewed here), is a refreshingly sunny story of contemporary teens finding their way toward first love. Nothing explodes, the world doesn’t end, there are no technological breakdowns or repressive forms of government. What a nice change for readers of YA fiction! Instead, in Stephanie Perkins’s novels, we’re treated to teens facing real-life problems, negotiating the perils of growing up and finding their way, struggling with big and little decisions, and figuring out what’s really important to them. In other words, characters who feel true and convincing, and who earn the investment a reader feels by the end of the book.
In Lola and the Boy Next Door, we meet the delightfully quirky Lola, a 17-year-old San Francisco native, growing up in the Castro district in the Victorian home she shares with her two dads. Lola believes in self-expression through costuming, and arrays herself in a never-ending rainbow of vintage dresses, multi-hued wigs, glitter and make-up, boots and raincoats, as she tries on different personae and presentations. Lola has learned to tolerate the slings and arrows of her more conformist-minded classmates, and bounces through her life with a couple of close friends and her supportive but very protective parents.
Lola is dating Max, a 22-year-old rock musician whose bad boy outside masks a more sensitive inner core. Max is surprisingly agreeable to the strictures imposed by Lola’s dads: mandatory attendance at the weekly grilling otherwise known as Sunday brunch, non-negotiable hourly phone calls during all dates and outings. This, however, does not prevent Lola from losing her virginity to Max during their supposedly “safe” sanctioned dates. After all, Lola thinks Max is “the one”. She’s in love, and all is well…
… Until the day that Lola’s former neighbors move back into the Victorian next door. The Bells moved away two years earlier in pursuit of daughter Calliope’s figure skating career, taking with them Calliope’s twin brother Cricket (the titular boy next door). Cricket and Lola had been inseparable for one wonderful summer, until a series of miscommunications and the family’s sudden move ripped the two apart and left Lola with a major hole in her heart.
Now Cricket is back, and Lola has to figure out whether she can let him back into her life. (Hint: the title pretty much lets us know that she does.) Lola and Cricket are rather adorable. Their bedroom windows face one another, and they have nightly conversations across the narrow gap between their houses. Cricket is sweet, smart, and head over heels for Lola. Lola wants to be friends… but can she really be happy with Max when Cricket is waiting in the wings?
All this sounds much shallower than it actually is. Both Lola and Cricket have inner doubts and demons to face. Lola’s birth mother Norah was a troubled teen who found herself with an unwanted pregnancy and gave the baby to her brother and his partner to raise. Norah pops back into their lives whenever she’s down and out, which is often, and is an ongoing source of embarrassment and self-questioning for Lola. Cricket has discovered some unsavory truths about his family’s past which make him doubt his own talents. On top of that, Cricket lives in his sister’s shadow, supporting her and cheering for her, but destined to have his life uprooted based on Calliope’s needs.
Lola has to make some big decisions, and I give Stephanie Perkins a lot of credit for not making these decisions easy or free of fall-out. Lola doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but it’s inevitable that she will. She doesn’t want to let down her fathers, but she ends up breaking their rules unintentionally. Even when Lola does what she needs to do, she doesn’t immediately bounce back and move on. We see a real teen dealing with real emotions, and even when it’s hard, it feels true.
As an added bonus, Anna and St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss are supporting characters in Lola and the Boy Next Door, and it’s quite fun to see them moving forward with their life plans (although they do kind of feel like an “old married couple” in this story, despite only being a year older than they were in their own book). Additionally, I personally got a big kick out of the San Francisco setting. It’s always fun to read fiction set in my town, and I loved the descriptions of the neighborhoods and various landmarks that figured into Lola’s story.
I enjoyed Lola and the Boy Next Door very much. Even though the title pretty much tells you how Lola’s story will end up, it’s the journey that’s so much fun. Lola is a terrific main character — not flawless, but fresh, honest, and individual, with her heart in the right place even if it takes her a bit of trying to figure out her actions. Stephanie Perkins’s writing is lively and the dialogue sparkles. I’m looking forward to reading more by this talented YA author: Her next book, Isla and the Happily Ever After, is due out in May of this year.