Let’s start with this: The Paper & Hearts Society is the kind of book I would have definitely loved as a teenager. Lucy Powrie combines her love of contemporary young adult fiction and classics with a captivating story of moving on from fractured friendships and bullying to create a great story brimming with allusions.
Tabby Brown is a fifteen-year-old book nerd moving to a new town over the summer. Somewhat introverted and anxious, Tabby isn't all that interested in exploring her new home; she’d rather stay at her Gran’s and read a book. Nevertheless, she falls in with an existing friend group, who've formed a book club. But she’s also being cyberbullied by a former friend. And so on one hand, Tabby has finally found some amazing bookish people to hang with—on the other hand, her entire world and ego are under psychic assault. It’s hard, though, to open up to people you’ve just met, even if you’re feeling a very real connection.
I mention above I would have loved this as a teenager. That’s not to imply I don’t love it now. However, the older I get the more I find myself having to consider YA novels from that perspective: what would teenage me have thought? The ironic thing is that teenage me didn’t read much YA. Diana Wynne-Jones looms large in the memory, and of course there was Harry Potter and Eragon, but let me tell you young whipper-snappers: you are so incredibly lucky with the boom in fantasy YA these days. It’s phenomenal.
Anyway, The Paper & Hearts Society isn’t fantasy, but that’s fine. It’s about a protagonist who loves books almost as much as breathing, and I can identify with that. Yes, there’s some kissing and romance in here (ew), so it wasn’t all fun, but I can overlook that because of how much I enjoyed spending time with Tabby and her new friends. Powrie captures the anxiety of trying to fit into a group that has already formed: that initial breathless apprehension and second-guessing; the weird way your clever book-soaked brain turns you into a sassy mofo, and you suddenly have an out of body experience where you're watching yourself and asking, “Who am I? This isn’t how I act around people!”; the strange twin sensations in your gut of butterflies because you’ve found people you enjoy spending time with and butterflies because oh-my-god-socializing-oh-my-god. It’s the kind of paradox that, at 29, I am all too familiar with, yet at 15, I expect Tabby is still unravelling about herself.
As someone twice Tabby’s age (ugh it sounds so weird to say that), it’s tempting for me to dismiss some of her concerns, especially around the cyberbullying. It’s definitely true that some adults forget what it’s like to be a teenager, and the relentless change in our society—particularly how we communicate—doesn’t help. When I was in high school, cyberbullying was definitely A Thing. We had MySpace and I think a thing called Friendster (can you tell how much time I spent on social media pre–Twitter and pre–Goodreads?) but we didn’t have smartphones, just the way cooler flip phones. So cyberbullying happened at desks in front of computer monitors, not on phones in our pockets. For anyone who isn’t using social media the way teens do right now, it can be difficult to comprehend what cyberbullying feels like on those platforms. Powrie’s portrayal is accurate (as far as I can tell), particularly in the underhanded ways in which the Jess manipulates Tabby. There’s a certain savviness required for these actions, or to debunk and defuse them as Ed and Cassie both attempt to do in their own ways. One of my favourite moments of the story is when Tabby’s dad suggests she invite Jess to stay with them once they’ve settled into their new home. This delightful ironic ignorance is so emblematic of well-meaning, loving parents who nevertheless just don’t get it.
So while it’s worth asking why Tabby struggles so much asking for help with her situation, a little soul-searching by the reader should hopefully furnish the answer. Dealing with these kinds of conflicts is very scary, especially when you mix it with trying to make new friends.
And oh wow do Tabby’s new friends come on strong. I love that Powrie lampshades this a few times, particularly through Henry when setting him up as the sensitive kind of guy for whom Tabby feels something. Indeed, each of Tabby’s four new friends has an interesting and distinct personality, both in person and in the group chats we get to read. They are all enjoyable and annoying, in my opinion, to some extent. (Shout-out, as well, to a deserving fifth “friend” in the form of Tabby’s Gran, Nancy, who also has a well-rounded personality.) I loved how hostile Cassie was to Tabby at first. It felt quite authentic, the idea that not everyone in the group would be happy with a new person jumping in, and especially how it’s related to other stresses in Cassie’s life. That being said, the one-on-one interactions between Tabby and each of the other friends were some of the least satisfying parts of the book for me. As much as I applaud Ed for sitting Tabby down in the bookstore, listening to her, and also explaining about Cassie’s situation, it felt like a bit of an awkward infodump—especially when Cassie then goes and repeats it to Tabby later, since she doesn’t know Tabby knows.
Aside from those interactions, however, The Paper & Hearts Society is remarkably streamlined in terms of its plot. Powrie keeps us on our toes, never letting us get too comfortable either with the format of the book club itself or Tabby’s relationships with the other members. Both of these elements evolve continuously throughout the book, as they should. I really didn’t want to put this down, but at the advanced old age of 29 I have a lot more trouble staying up all night than I did as a teenager—don’t feel too bad for me though, because picking it up the next day meant I could finish it in the sun on my deck.
In the end, there’s just the right amount of realness to The Paper & Hearts Society, if you know what I mean. It speaks to me, both present!me and teenage!me, in its characterization and the issues and interests it embraces. Maybe it’s an indulgence, but I just love books about books—it’s meta and totally related to my interests. I’m also quite pleased to hear that there’s a sequel in the works with Olivia as the principal protagonist. Her demisexuality, the casualness with which it was revealed to Tabby, the use of so many good terms in that conversation (including asexuality) and the acknowledgement of the spectrum was so heartening, as someone who is pretty confidently aromantic/asexual, to read. Although Olivia is much more of a people person than either myself or Tabby, I’m still excited to see what’s in store for her story.