Every time I start another Holly Bourne book, I’m scared. I think, “Is this the time? Is this the book where Bourne lets me down, and I have to be disappointed??” And the answer is always no, as it is with The Places I’ve Cried in Public. I read this mostly in private, but otherwise there would have been some public tears, let me tell you.
Trigger warnings in this book for discussion and depictions of emotional and sexual abuse by a boyfriend.
Amelie has recently moved from Sheffield to the south of England and is starting her A Levels. She and her boyfriend have made a pact to break up but not fall in love, so they can pick up where they left off two years later at the University of Manchester. But then Amelie meets Reese, and everything is intense and wonderful—until it isn’t. It’s not a new story, but Bourne tells it with her usual complexity and gut-punching honesty. She also employs an interesting framing structure: each chapter is a different place Amelie has cried, usually as a result of her relationship with Reese and the fallout from their breakup. She talks to Reese in the second person at the beginning and end of each chapter, with the middle of the chapter a flashback set in the past and depicting a specific event from their time together, leading up of course to the public tears.
Look, if you’re coming to this book for suspense or surprise, you will not find it. The plot is utterly predictable, even without Amelie’s very overt foreshadowing mentioning red flags and the end of friendships, etc. That’s the point: Bourne is preparing us for the emotional journey ahead by giving us the framework of the narrative journey. This isn’t about trying to figure out what will happen, how it will end, etc. It’s a story about Amelie coming to terms with this huge thing that happened to her.
Like, Reese is a ding dong from the moment we meet him, and it just gets worse. I texted my friend Rebecca (in whose hands I press each Bourne book as she finishes the previous one I lent her) as Reese crossed more and more lines, like when he “surprises” Amelie with his “romantic” gesture at her first big show. Ugh. I’ve never had a romantic relationship with someone and I still know that’s not on. In fact, Reese is so much bad news wrapped up in a single macho wanker package that one might criticize Bourne for going overboard here. Is he a caricature of a manipulative and emotionally abusive manboy teenchild? Maybe. I’ll leave that to each reader to decide for themselves—I will say that if anything could be improved here, it’s probably the character of Reese himself, definitely. He could use a bit more dimension, a little bit more time on the page to breathe and be himself rather than being the Bad Guy of Amelie’s memories (this is, of course, one of the limitations of first person).
Yet Reese’s black-and-white characterization is almost certainly deliberate. Bourne does not want to brook debate here. This is not about “maybe.” Reese crosses lines that should not be crossed, and we can speculate and discuss about why that’s the case (toxic masculinity), but Bourne has other books about that. This is about Amelie’s experience. I see some people likening it to Tori’s relationship with Tom in How Do You Like Me Now?, and I agree with the comparison—to an extent. But this isn’t merely a YA version of Tori/Tom. This is about a manipulative and abusive boy and the way being in a relationship with him feels like a drug you can’t give up, even if you’re starting to wonder at what it’s doing to you. I’d say a slightly more accurate comparison to an adult novel on this subject would be the stellar Almost Love by Louise O’Neill.
The trademark heartbreaking Holly Bourne moment I’ve come to expect near the climax of every book happens here too, of course, when Amelie visits her old friends in Sheffield and Everything Goes Horribly Wrong. One reason I read these books so fast is simply because I need to get through them as fast as possible, like ripping off a band-aid, because these are emotionally draining books. And yes, Amelie certainly makes mistakes—she is, like all of us, flawed on top of being young and inexperienced in these things, and I appreciate that we get lots of facets of her character. She screws up bad with Alfie; she gets her former best friend upset … it’s a whole thing. There are a few other details that really make this book stand out.
First, Hannah. Hannah rocks. That’s all I’m going to say. I just really like how Bourne deploys this characters.
Second, the parents are great, as usual. This is something I don’t want to go unremarked about Bourne’s novels—so many YA novels neglect parents, or use them as casual antagonists. And sure, not everyone has great parents (or even a pair of parents), and those stories are valid. But I love that Bourne often portrays protagonists whose parents are as loving and supportive as they know how to be and yet the protagonist still struggles.
Third, therapy. Amelie goes to a therapist, who asks her the right questions, the tough questions, and Bourne depicts these scenes with realism and compassion. Love seeing therapy depicted constructively in YA literature. There are similar scenes of compassion between Amelie and her parents (see above) as well as a teacher. At one point, the therapist remarks that what happened between Amelie and Reese wasn’t her fault, wasn’t fair, but that now she has to live with it being a part of her for the rest of her life. It’s so poignant, so painfully true … ugh. Maybe I’m just a sucker for all the feels, but I felt them with this book, my friends.
The Places I’ve Cried in Public is very much an issue book. As are all of Bourne’s novels. But it is first and foremost an impeccably plotted, emotionally-tuned piece of storycraft, and as with all of her previous stories, it’s another example of the thought and compassion Bourne puts into these books. These are stories that I wish I could have read when I was younger—not necessarily to avoid making mistakes, because honestly I’ve been very lucky in my life … but these are books that help young people understand why the mistakes we make are not always of our own making, and how we can pick ourselves up afterwards. And I don’t know what it is … I don’t know if it’s some eldritch magic or just a lot of sweat and tears, but Bourne has got it. She knows how to build these stories, how to breathe life into these characters and their experiences. I need these stories. Teenagers need these stories.
Everyone deserves to be told that the way other people treat them is not their fault.