Senior year. First boyfriends. An adulterous parent. Those are just three of the elements Sarah Everett’s and Tanaz Bhathena’s new novels have in common. No One Here Is Lonely and The Beauty of the Moment feature introverted teen girls who start off as frustratingly needy and standoffish, respectively. But their journeys to self-possessed and trusting make for gratifying reads.
No One Here Is Lonely is a teen romance with a distinct hook: Eden Paulsen’s long-time secret crush, Will, dies in a car accident on the same night she finally makes a move to kiss him. Soon after, she learns Will had signed himself up for an AI after-death service, whereby his loved ones can call a number and continue to converse with him. Eden devotes more and more time and energy to building a relationship with afterlife Will even as her real-life family and best friendship are falling apart. It’s Ghost meets Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters.
While the computer-human courtship is the teaser, the story is really focused on Eden’s feelings of inadequacy and stress in a high-achieving family – sisters who excel at academics and sports and a mom who is a celebrity life coach. As one of the few Black families in the U.S. town of Erinville, the Paulsen’s put pressure on themselves to “exude something that impresses people, something that feels a lot like perfection.”
When Eden catches her mother having an affair, she’s devastated by the hypocrisy and is paralyzed over what to do about it. The person she’d usually confide in, her best friend Lacey, has been pulling away just as they are about to embark on their final summer before heading off to state college together.
Eden’s moping grates on her friends and family – and the reader – but she’s a well-drawn protagonist who elicits sympathy as well as frustration. Despite the futuristic gimmick, the romantic arc is predictable. It’s not a surprise that a flesh-and-blood male is able to woo Eden away from the artificial boyfriend. But the book contains a couple of unexpected plot twists involving the hard-partying Lacey. Readers may be left wanting a novel about her, too.
There are no twists and turns in The Beauty of the Moment, a straight-ahead boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back story. Susan Thomas is new to Canada, living with her mom in Mississauga, Ontario, while her father continues to work as a doctor in Saudi Arabia – making excuses not to join them. Originally from India, this Malayali-Christian family immigrated for the sole purpose of Susan’s education, with the expectation that she’ll end up a doctor or an engineer. Susan’s not particularly excited about her new-found Canadian freedoms or her parents’ preferred occupations. She’s suspicious of boys, doesn’t want to learn to drive, and misses school in Saudi Arabia, where all her friends faced similar academic and familial expectations. Susan realizes she’d like to follow her passion and go to art school but knows her parents would never allow it.
Malcolm Vakil’s family, meanwhile, is Parsi and originally from India as well, though he was born in Canada. His mother is dead, his dad’s abusive, and he can’t stand his stepmother. After months of partying and drinking, he’s pulling himself together for the sake of his little sister. His crush on Susan also becomes a motivating factor.
Bhathena peels back the layers of her characters in a way that draws readers to them. Despite their initial insecurities and defence mechanisms, Susan and Malcolm prove to be bright, articulate, and sensitive teens worth rooting for. They have a slow-burn innocent courtship (with food-court shawarmas playing a prominent role) and a sweet relationship – Malcolm breaks down Susan’s protective barriers and Susan inspires him to apply himself in and out of school – that is constantly tested by Susan’s wariness and the meddling of Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend. The story is told from Susan’s and Malcolm’s alternating first-person perspectives, and the narrative benefits from the he-said-she-said descriptions of their first kiss and both sides of the breakup. But while more ink and detail is given to Susan’s character, it’s Malcolm’s voice – shifting between poetically insightful and hormonally angsty – that feels urgent, nuanced, and unexpected.
In The Beauty of the Moment, as with No One Here Is Lonely, the more extroverted secondary character is the one you’d like to spend more time with.