Jessicas and Elizabeths

We Are the Goldens - Dana Reinhardt
”I love you tons,” you said.
“I know.”
“And, Nell?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You do?”
“Of course.”
“Don’t insult me.”
I closed your door.
That’s how I vowed to keep your secret.

I just love that exchange. It so perfectly captures what this book is about.

I probably have the least credibility in discussing a book about two sisters. I’ve never had the pleasure of having one. And while there are definite perks in being an only child, I can’t deny that I’ve always wanted to have a Jessica to my Elizabeth (because of course, I’m that Wakefield). So I’m finding it a little strange to find how much this book spoke to me. How often I’ve found myself in Nell’s shoes and, sad as it may be, how many Laylas I have (figuratively speaking) in my life right now. 

The Goldens are Nell and Layla, and the book is told from Nell’s perspective speaking to her sister. She is recounting the events of the year when she joined her sister in school: a freshman on Layla’s Junior year in high school. There’s a sense of foreboding in Nell’s narrative that draws one’s curiosity early on but it didn’t have the heaviness of a mystery, the point I felt it was trying to make doesn’t lie on the shock value of a big reveal or a plot twist. Instead this was about a 15-year old girl who has happily lived her life in the loving shadow of her sister, a faithful devotee of their oneness. This tells the painful process of that spell being broken, when the spectator from the crowd realizes she’s her own person and the Emperor she so cheered on and adored for so long, is so obliviously naked. 

This book had all the usual suspects in contemporary YA fiction: the likeable heroine who looks up to her prettier, smarter and all around awesome-r older sister who has a secret; the funny (but this time, straight) best friend; the mysterious and brooding boy who has caught likeable heroine’s fancy; the separately charming Mom and Dad. It had all the ingredients that always makes this genre reliably entertaining to me: the effortless and un-purple narrative; the quirky little details (i.e. the Fakespeare, the buffalos and the inside jokes); the believable dialogue that endears the characters to me further.

That formula is just so very hard to not work for me.

I really liked how very age-appropriate Nell’s thought process came across. At 15, as a freshman in a school that looks up to her sister along with her, it was refreshingly honest how this presented the conflict of her reality disentangling from that of Layla’s. I love how this depicted their love for each other, how it made me believe and empathize with Nell in carrying the burden of Layla's secret. The struggle of playing the supportive sister while keeping her best interest at heart is one that was believably difficult and worth a lengthy discussion over alcohol. 

The drama was thankfully kept to the barest minimum, the gratuity kept in check. I’m impressed how this presented a young girl learning her lessons without pretense: rejection doesn’t always stem from a garish confrontation, most of the times its in the quiet shame of an unresponsive cellphone, or the second-hand gossip one watches to complete its trajectory of natural death. I found it very smart and respectful in presenting teenagers beyond the hormones but not to the point of castrating them.

”Is this what it’s like?”
“Being a boy. Do you just sit around all the time thinking about naked girls? Isn’t there more to it?”
“Of course there is. We care about things like your intellect and your sense of humor and your capacity for kindness, but we also really like how you look naked.”

I have two minds about how Nell and Felix’s relationship was handled. Because on the one hand it grazes on several levels of disturbing: the reason my guy best friend and I become best friends is precisely because there’s zero chance that we’d even consider of being together TOGETHER. EVER. On the other hand, [both parties took such matter into consideration under stressful circumstances. So I’m seeing this as the beginning of the painful, blood-curdling end for that friendship. Which is such a heartbreaker because I really like Felix and it’s such a shame that characters like him has to either be flamingly gay or end up falling in love with his best friend heroine.

An angle that could easily be overlooked in this story is the actual dynamic between The Goldens. It’s interesting how this book pointed out, however briefly in the end, the underlying pathos to all that adorable togetherness of a family ambling along as though they’ve not been ripped apart. It’s an issue that is often glossed over in YA contemporary fiction in exchange for mom and dad jokes. But I like how this reflected on how that heartbreak filters into belated tangents of unpredictable consequences.

I was definitely taken aback with how much I enjoyed We Are The Goldens, it felt like revisiting an old genre, one that has now been twisted, complexed and overhauled in creative infinity, stripped to (most) of its best working parts.

And it still hits the spot for me.

ARC courtesy of the publishers thru Netgalley. Quotes taken from an uncorrected proof.