It has been nearly a year since I read Am I Normal Yet?, the first book in Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy. That was Evie’s story of her struggle with OCD and related issues. With some nice summer weather (finally), I decided it was time to tackle the sequel, wherein Amber spends a summer in America, working at a summer camp run by her mother and stepfather. I’m not as big a fan of Amber as I am of Evie, so it was hard to let the latter’s voice go. Nevertheless, Bourne again demonstrates her pitch-perfect characterization of teenagers and their parents and her mastery of the ambiguous happy ending.
Trigger warnings for the book and this review: alcoholism and child abuse/neglect.
I charged Amber with the crime of not being Evie at the beginning of this review. She’s guilty of it—but that’s a good thing, right? Nothing is worse than an author who can’t write characters with unique voices. So it’s good that Bourne can write more than one UK teenager. Obviously, since Amber doesn’t share Evie’s anxiety and compulsiveness, she is more whimsical in how she behaves. She drinks and generally gets up into mischief … yet, paradoxically, there is steel beneath this carefree exterior. Amber is afraid of losing control as a result of her experiences with her mother.
My sympathies lie, for the most part, with Amber. After all, in addition to being the protagonist, she is also a teenager, while her mom is a parent. Nevertheless, despite the first-person narration, Bourne still manages to portray Amber and her mom’s fraught relationship with depth and complexity. We see her mom’s pain, the daily struggle of a recovering alcoholic—but we see it through the eyes of the child whom it has affected so dearly. And, yeah, Amber says some harsh things, does things that might not be advisable—but it all makes sense in the context of what she has gone through. How Hard Can Love Be? neither sugarcoats nor sensationalizes the life of a recovering alcoholic and her estranged teenage daughter: Bourne carefully distills the truth, for all its vinegar.
It’s amusing watching a UK author write about the States. Aided by her travels across the country, Bourne includes enough geography and some rich descriptions of Yosemite National Park. She also has a lot of fun in the vocabulary and cultural differences between the US and the UK (“poo-dank” hehe). I think she slips up at one point—she has Kyle talk about “year groups”, which should be grades in the US—but for the most part, the “British fish in American waters” trope is strong here. To her credit, Bourne doesn’t overuse it: Amber spends most of the novel at the camp run by her mother and stepfather, so we don’t see her interacting too much with the rest of American society.
I thought I would miss the rest of the Spinster Club dearly given that an ocean separates the other two from Amber. Fortunately, Bourne’s use of Skype chats and emails remedies this. Lottie and Evie’s distinct voices, as they war over the keyboard or eat cheesy snacks on webcam, are such a delight. Once again, it just feels so good to hear these three distinct and diverse female teenage voices in a novel that is not just feminist but about feminism. If Am I Normal Yet? is an intro to feminism, then How Hard Can Love Be? is the next-level course that introduces some more complicated topics, like the Female Chauvinist Pig.
Melody is such an interesting character, and I love how Bourne sets her up as a foil to explicitly deconstruct the “bimbo cheerleader villain” who so often appears in stories like this. You know, the one who robs the less-conventionally-attractive protagonist of her conventionally-attractive paramour, at least until the climax of the book? Bourne subverts this all here, and she does it in a very open way, pointing out to her presumably teenage audience the traps that women fall into as a result of the patriarchy.
Probably the most resonant note of the entire book, however, is when Lottie and Evie attempt to persuade Amber to go for it with Kyle, despite her fears over getting hurt. I so cannot wait to read the next book and just be inside Lottie’s head; here’s what she has to say:
Lottie’s face was read, and she punched the air. “It won’t make the world change for the better! It won’t make me change for the better. I won’t grow, if I just accept what’s what. The world won’t grow. The same unfair shit will just keep happening, and yes it’s easier to roll over and say, ‘That’s too hard and annoying, I just want to eat some pie’ but it’s not the right thing…”
Evie smiled slowly. “So you gotta fight for your right to be ruddy miserable?”
Lottie patted her shoulder. “Yes! Exactly. Because because because IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO.”
Although I don’t entirely agree with the sentiments expressed in this section of the book, I love that Bourne tries to tease out the distinctions between doing what makes one “happy” (for some value thereof) and doing “the right thing”. This are not always the same, but sometimes we are told that they are (usually when a company wants to sell us something). Amber’s fear of getting hurt in the future is stopping her from growing and changing and making herself (and potentially her world) a better place in the present. This is a powerful moment, a powerful scene, and it’s really well done—as is, let’s face it, the rest of the book.
How Hard Can Love Be? establishes in my mind a definite trend for Holly Bourne’s endings. She likes happy endings, but she also loves realism. I’ve seen that in both of the other novels of hers that I’ve read. Bourne likes to show her readers that the possibility always exists to be all right, but she also reminds us that life never promises you’ll stay that way. I like books that are optimistic while still reminding us that there are no promises, that nothing is ever a given.
So why not 5 stars like the first book of this series? Honestly, it’s just my preference for Evie as a narrator over Amber, and my preference for Evie’s adventures over Amber’s romance. It’s just not my thing, and watching Amber fall for Kyle isn’t my cup of tea. If it’s yours, and you like everything else I’ve said, then you’re going to love this book. Bourne’s writing is tight and smart and compassionate; her voice is so valuable to YA,and I hope books like this keep coming.