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Book Review: Why “Happily Ever Afters” Now Holds A Special Place In My Heart

The number of books I have and still need to read is getting out of hand, and yet I felt compelled to grab this new YA novel I saw fresh off the shelf at Barnes and Noble last week. “Happily Ever Afters” by Elise Bryant became available in stores in January of this year. HarperCollins Publishers is currently marketing this YA gem as “Jane the Virgin meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in this charming debut romantic comedy filled with Black Girl Magic.” 

[bf_image id="wqbmsthjq7t8gg5bk7b8m78"] What really got me to pick up the book, though, was how I could relate to the main character Tessa’s life straight from the blurb. Tessa is a sixteen-year-old writer who is about to start at her new school, at which she recently got accepted into the creative writing program. However, she finds that upon her arrival to her first fiction workshop class, her excitement is replaced with anxiety and her words can’t seem to materialize on the page. The story’s plot is propelled by Tessa and her best friend Caroline’s plan to get her writing inspiration back by creating her own real-life romance to base it on. This worrying-so-much-you-can’t-write experience was immediately really familiar to me as a Creative Writing major myself. 

I started reading this book as soon as I brought it home and finished it the next day, it was that encapsulating. Bryant brilliantly weaves together so many different but all-important subjects in such racial microaggressions, the complexity of teen friendships, dealing with anxiety, and POC/LGBTQ+ characters without excessive precursory explanations for them. Most of the writing, descriptions, and dialogue felt realistic to me which I appreciated. The only trope I really disagreed with was the central “hot, airhead guy” Nico vs. “ugly, super sweet guy” Sam debate, especially because it felt like it went on carrying the plot for way too long. I really appreciated Sam’s character and how genuine he seemed; it felt too unrealistic, and just mean, that all Tessa couldn’t get past was his “looks” for a majority of the book. Ironically, she ignores all of Nico’s red flags of ignorance just because he’s “cute,” which was consistently disappointing yet also sadly relatable to the adolescent experience of many POC girls. 

[bf_image id="mbhk6f6b8gpgnj7gtbwjc3s"] In that sense, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of Tessa’s actions and beliefs, but I now realize that that was likely Bryant’s point. Tessa is sixteen years old, in the middle of her prime teenage years, and drowning in external expectations from society, her family, and friends. She deserves to make mistakes now and then since teenagers should not be expected to be perfect or all-knowing. All her misinformed actions show how Tessa is suppressing her better judgment and intuition for the sake of something she thinks she should be or want until she figures out what to believe for herself, which is the whole point of adolescence.  So, looking back I can appreciate all of Tessa’s struggles because they were likely forced on her and that’s what makes her self-realization at the end of this book so effective. 

[bf_image id="wmp7jpkgx8sgcg5p9kbjtj8q"] Though the book seems like a cutesy teen romance at a first glance, it has a much more fulfilling theme of finding self-love and embracing art in a way that doesn’t rely on any other person: “I think… that accepting myself should have come before trying to find the perfect guy... I needed to love myself first. And I do. I really do.” Tessa realizes that her writing and her life are for her own happiness only. I’m a sucker for romance but the ending of this book is probably one of my favorites just because of how it differentiates itself from the typical trope of attaching self-love to romantic love by focusing on honest vulnerability instead. It screams such a great message for young girls everywhere which is that: no matter how much you might think so, you don’t actually need anyone or anything to complete you. In the long run, you will be perfectly okay with or without them. 

Shanelle Huynh

UC Riverside '22

I am a fourth-year creative writing major, business minor at UCR learning to define my own way of living as a "writer" and sharing what I find out on my journey along the way.
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