Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It’s time for another Holly Bourne book, and if you’ve been following along my reviews, then you know what to expect by now: incisive, excellent narration from a teenage girl who is at a turning point in her life, some kind of crisis moment, and a lot of honest discussions about mental health, sex, romance, and friendship. In other words, it’s an epitome of a subgenre of YA in which Bourne has carved out a considerable niche. It Only Happens in the Movies is Bourne’s first standalone YA novel after finishing The Spinster Club series, and it departs from that series enough to stand out while still presenting the same fresh, feminist ideas that are a hallmark of Bourne’s writing.
Audrey was named after Audrey Hepburn, of course—her dad proposed to her mom in Rome because of Roman Holiday. But now her dad has left her mom for a younger model, including new kids, and that makes Audrey’s home life … stressed, to say the least. She has started an after-school job at a boutique cinema. She pegs her male coworker, Harry, as a “fuckboy” right off the bat—yet that doesn’t change the feelings she starts to develop as they bond over cinema. With all these stresses and complications, it’s no wonder Audrey looks at the canon of romantic comedies and finds her life wanting. Because some of these things only do happen in the movies….
Although I can’t identify with Audrey’s romance plot, I definitely found it fascinating. Bourne explores the complicated feelings that surround falling in love with someone you’re determined not to fall for. Everyone warns Audrey off Harry, and she herself resolves not to be attracted to him—yet it happens anyway. Even when she recognizes he might not be the best thing for her, she still goes for it. I enjoyed not just how Audrey expresses her evolving feelings about this, but also how her family and friends react. Audrey feels isolated and estranged from her best friend group after avoiding them for much of the summer; once they learn about Harry, they practically push her to pick him up as a “rebound guy”. I cringed for Audrey at this point, and part of me regrets the inevitability of Audrey and Harry becoming a thing—but I really like how, overall, Bourne handles the entire relationship, especially the ending.
There is a sharp tension in It Only Happens in the Movies delineated exactly by its title: this book aims to critique and subvert romantic comedy tropes, even as it pursues a romance for its protagonist. I enjoyed the epigraphs explaining some of these tropes in Audrey’s voice, and the moments she discusses them with her peers and teacher. And then there’s the zombie movie that Harry is shooting, and in which Audrey acquires the starring role: the genre is so thoroughly distinct from the romantic movies Audrey critiques that it’s a nice foil, even as Audrey’s feminist stance informs her character of the “zombie bride”.
The ultimate aspect of that tension comes in the resolution, of course. Inevitably, Harry screws things up (saw that coming). Inevitably, there is a grand, romantic gesture that he hopes will win her back. In the movies this always works … in It Only Happens in the Movies, it also works, just not quite in the way Harry expects. I really, really liked this ending. So often our stories about romance depict one of two outcomes: happily ever after together, or at odds entirely. The reality is usually messier, though, and Bourne captures that well with this: Audrey respects Harry as a film auteur, appreciates his gesture, wishes him well … but doesn’t give him a second chance. In this way, It Only Happens in the Movies serves as a good tonic to a lot of teenage romance, which like the romantic movies that Audrey criticizes, often have unrealistic assumptions about how people (particularly teenage boys) will reform in the final act. It’s very cathartic. And it’s a nice way of portraying how, sometimes, we make mistakes we can’t come back from, and while we might receive forgiveness, that doesn’t mean we deserve a second chance, no matter how grand our gesture.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! There are entire other layers to this book, and I actually liked some of them even more than the romance plot. Take, for example, Audrey’s complicated relationship with her parents and brother. Audrey’s mom is struggling with the fallout of her divorce, and Audrey has to step up and parent her parent more than a seventeen-year-old girl should have to do. Her brother thinks he is doing his bit, but Audrey has her doubts, and she feels like too much falls on her shoulders. Meanwhile, Audrey tries to maintain a connection to her dad, even when it’s somewhat clear that he isn’t that interested in being in her life beyond formalities. It’s very compelling, watching her struggle to hold on to some sense of normality in her family ties, even as her definition of family fluctuates and might implode.
As with Bourne’s other novels, this one definitely tugs at my heartstrings. I found myself a little emotional, a little teary, especially towards the end. I’m having trouble articulating how much I enjoyed this one, but I hope I got across how fresh and entertaining It Only Happens in the Movies feels. It’s Not Your Average Teenage Romance, but it also isn’t cynical or dismissive of the idea of teenage romance either. Bourne acknowledges the complicated realities of being a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood, portrays all the stresses and obligations a young adult must weigh even as she tries to figure out her feelings about friends and lovers. There’s so much I didn’t touch on in this review that I also enjoyed, and honestly, I’m almost tempted to go back and read the book again, this soon! So far, seems like Bourne keeps bottling lightning, and I’m happy to remain an unabashed fangirl!