Last year I picked up my first Holly Bourne book with Am I Normal Yet?. I had been hearing so much about Bourne and her Spinster Club trilogy from people I follow on Twitter and YouTube that I ordered all of her books—yes, all of them—on faith. I deliberately deferred her debut, Soulmates. Not only did I want to see what all the fuss around the Spinster Club was about, but I know that debut novels are often not representative of an author’s full talents. Nevertheless, I still wanted to tackle Soulmates before getting too deep into the rest of Bourne’s back catalogue, so this was the first book I started in 2017. It proved a good choice.
If you can’t guess what this book is about from its title, you’re trying to be too clever. It’s exactly what the title promises. Poppy Lawson is seventeen years old, and she thinks boys her age are stupid. Then she meets Noah, a “fit guitarist” and troubled child, and their connection is electric and panic-inducing. As Poppy and Noah circle one another and start dating, we learn that their status as soulmates is literally an existential crisis—that there is an entire secret society devoted to stopping soulmates from getting together, because natural disasters are the result. If Poppy and Noah don’t want to cause untold death and destruction, they can never be together. What’s a girl gotta—wait, sorry, wrong book….
Soulmates is strange fare. It walks that line between being science fiction and not, never quite deciding how far it wants go towards the tropes of that genre. It takes a very long time for the soulmate police subplot to intersect with the main narrative. Until about the last 50 pages of the book, one could theoretically excise the italicized scenes between the members of the soulmate police, remove this entire subplot, and the book could just be about a particularly charged romance between two teenagers. The weird weather would just be a footnote. And to be honest, I kind of did this, mentally, because Dr. Beaumont was the least satisfactory character for me. Everything from the descriptions of her to her behaviour felt quite one-dimensional.
In contrast, the main characters of Soulmates have the three-dimensional and vibrant personalities I would expect, having enjoyed Am I Normal Yet?’s dynamic cast. Poppy endeared herself to me at the end of chapter 3:
“Anyway, on that note, I’m going to go home now. Ruth, in the future, can you please refrain from using my illness as a pulling method?”
I turned on my heels and made for the door, forcing myself not to break into a run. In one last moment of courage or madness—whatever you want to call it—I turned back and examined the stunned looks on their faces.
“Oh, and watch out,” I added. “She’s had chlamydia twice.”
And I flicked my head round and walked out into the night.
Low blow, perhaps, a bit reminiscent of Mean Girls but so too was Ruth’s behaviour. And whereas in Mean Girls Cady was only pretending to befriend the Plastics, these girls are genuinely Poppy’s friend.
Bourne is really good at depicting the complicated, often messy, nuanced interactions that happen among adolescent girls. One moment, Ruth is using Poppy’s anxiety as a way to make herself look better in front of a boy—the next, Ruth is helping Poppy’s other friends super-glam her in preparation for a date (with same said boy, ironically). This is the kind of behaviour that is played for laughs and used by male writers to patronize women/girls or downplay female friendships—“them bitches be crazy” is a common refrain. Instead, Bourne pulls back the curtain ever so slightly to show what influences these relationships. Poppy herself is a very introspective character, reflecting on her own changing self—how she couldn’t care less about any of the boys her age, and now she is hot for Noah—as well as the personalities of her friends, from Lizzie’s buoyant and intrepid journalistic ambitions to Amanda’s surprising journey from shyness to assertiveness to Ruth’s overcompensation for her own insecurity.
As much as I liked Poppy’s forthright attitude, though, I confess Lizzie is my breakaway favourite. It’s just that every time she shows up, you know you’re going to have a good time with this scene. You know you’re going to laugh, because Lizzie cannot keep a secret, because she is so nosy, because despite these flaws, Lizzie is Poppy’s true best friend. And it is great that, in a novel that is essentially a YA romance, we are also getting all these positive depictions of female friendship.
OK, Kara, that’s all well and good, but what about that romance?
I suppose one benefit of the science-fictional angle in this plot is that, whether or not I believe in soulmates (I don’t), this story takes place in a world where soulmates exist. So we can set that aside and take it as read that Poppy and Noah are, indeed, meant for each other. Bourne tries to balance their expressed desire to “take it slow” with the hormones that continue to push them together and prod them into more and more physical moments of intimacy. As a result, the romance feels both very intense and not at all rushed—there is an inexorable, powerful development of Poppy’s understanding of herself, and herself in relation to this boy, that is quite compelling. While I can’t relate to this myself, I can only imagine that there will be some teenagers out there who can identify with the way Poppy expresses her hesitation, her mixed feelings about how quickly everything is moving, as well as how much she wants things to move so much faster.
And then there’s the ending. Sometimes I’m a sucker for happy endings, but I have to admit, tragedies do tend to be more my style. I’m not going to spoil the details, but let’s just say that Soulmates is not about two people living happily ever after. Bourne does not promise her audience that you’ll find The One and everything will work out OK. Rather, the theme here is that love—any kind of love, as I read it, be it romantic or otherwise—is a powerful influence on one’s character. Love changes you, sometimes in surprising ways. So whether a relationship is destined to be for a day, a year, or maybe forever, that person leaves a mark on you—and you on them. It rather reminds me of the song “For Good” from Wicked.
Soulmates is an admirable debut novel. It already contains precursors of things that Bourne goes on to explore more fully in her later books, such as mental health issues. Despite wrapping itself around an intriguing science-fictional premise, the narrative never really embraces that part of the story except in the final, feverish rush towards a climax near the end of the book. However, it mostly makes up for this by containing so many well-drafted characters. For a book that is, literally, about fated love, Soulmates is more remarkable for being so much more than romance.