I’ve never been a fan of Romeo and Juliet. I agree, wholeheartedly, that Shakespeare was a genius. His works have moved me to tears, given me butterflies and even sent shivers down my spine. But Romeo and Juliet?! A teenage boy pining over a girl we never actually see, getting forced into going to a party where he forgets the agony he’s just told us he’s in because he’s distracted by another pretty teenage girl. Then, again, within seconds, he’s declaring his undying love, only this time he’s married her within a week and is dead in her arms not too long after. Perhaps I’m unreasonably judgemental. Maybe I’ve become a twenty-five-year-old curmudgeon. It could have something to do with the fact that I don’t believe in love at first sight! Whatever the reason, the whole concept is ridiculous to me.
Before all you horrified readers click the little cross in the top corner, hear me out. Allow me to explain. The first time I meet someone I find attractive, everything they do is perfect. Their jokes (and subsequent laughter at their own jokes) makes me laugh; their habit of touching the stubble on their lower jawline is sexier than anyone else that’s done it before them; the silly little thing they did earlier just makes me eager to see them again as soon as humanly possible. I turn into a teenager with a crush! Then I start to get to know him properly. All of a sudden that silly little thing turns into a stupid, childish thing and the jokes are actually kind of racist or demeaning to others. In fact, they laugh like a hyena and it’s really annoying. The rose-coloured glasses come off. I realise that I’m not into this guy at all. It’s barely been a week. It all ends with me laughing at how stupid I was, getting caught up in a romantic fantasy.
Because that’s exactly what it is: a romantic fantasy. It’s forced upon us by the books we read and the movies we watch. But real relationships are hard work. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to despise the man that I end up wanting to spend the rest of my life with when I first meet him. Love at first sight isn’t something I’ve ever experienced or witnessed. My parents didn’t meet until their wedding day; they’ve been married for forty-five years and are the happiest couple I know. My eldest sister chose a match that was, for a four-year-old me, extremely odd. Truth be told, I’ve only recently realised how much of a catch he is! And my third sister fell in love with and married someone that even she would say wasn’t her type.
That being said, when I picked up Krystal Sutherland’s Our Chemical Hearts, I prepared myself for a stereotypical teenage love story: boy meets girl, boy falls madly in love with girl, boy all but proposes marriage to girl after a week… maybe a month. So, with my outlook on love at first sight, and the fact that I was completely wrong about the structure of this boy meets girl story, you can see why I enjoyed it so much.
Our Chemical Hearts follows around Henry Page. He’s fairly good-looking, is obsessed with movies and has spent his teenage years avoiding romantic relationships, throwing himself into becoming the editor of the school newspaper instead. Enter his love interest, Grace Town. She’s definitely not your typical romantic lead. She walks with a limp, doesn’t bother combing her hair, dresses in boys’ clothing and possibly hasn’t had a shower in a while. It’s probably more curiosity at first sight than love, but declarations of the latter were made throughout the narrative as Henry and Grace find themselves unable to fight the sparks between them. The closer Henry gets, however, the more broken he realises that Grace is.
The odds are stacked high against our young lovers. Their relationship is doomed from the very beginning, it’s toxic, and we readers know it. What’s so brilliant about Sutherland’s debut novel (SPOILER ALERT!) is that they still don’t get together. Instead of forcing a change in Grace’s character that would be unrealistic and frankly ridiculous (the sudden change in Christian Grey’s character comes to mind and makes my eyes roll), Sutherland breaks Henry’s, Grace’s and our hearts.
What we learn is that the outcome is not what’s important here, it’s the journey. Although they’re nothing more than stepping stones in each other’s lives, lessons are learned and that’s what matters. It’s a nice surprise to find, among all the generic romances in contemporary young adult fiction where all obstacles are somehow overcome, something real.