What I Like About You by Marisa Kanter

May 3, 2020

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What I Like About You

by Marisa Kanter
April 7, 2020 · Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Teen FictionYoung Adult

CW/TW warnings inside
CW/TW: grief related to deceased grandmother and sibling; anxiety; panic attacks

What I Like About You is a terrific example of how a book’s flaws can overwhelm the good parts. It has engaging writing, stellar #ownvoices rep of Jewish teens, and nuanced exploration of grief. It also enraged me enough to slam my tablet down and seethe for a good hour after I finished. My initial grade was an F but I upgraded my rating after a few days of introspection (see the above good parts). At the 50% marker, I wanted to DNF and save myself. I only continued because I was motivated to see if the ending pissed me off, too. It did.

Popular YA book blogger Halle is hiding under an online pseudonym to create book-themed cupcake art and reviews. Her “Kels” pseudonym isn’t for safety/privacy reasons like I initially assumed. Halle’s recently deceased grandma was a famous book editor and Halle doesn’t want nepotism to unfairly give her publishing dreams a boost. One True Pastry is Halle’s validation that she can attain a large platform by herself. It’s all good, except for the part where she and her brother move in with her grandfather for senior year of high school. Her Oscar-nominated parents are filming their latest documentary, her grieving grandfather stripped the house of his wife’s possessions, and the first person she runs into is her online BFF-slash-cartoonist Nash Kim. Halle gives Real Nash the cold shoulder but continues her alter-ego Kels’s bubbly friendship with Online Nash (all the while listening to Online Nash gripe about his troubles with Halle).

I can’t jeopardize Kels’s friendship with Nash. I won’t. I don’t know how to friendship IRL. Behind a screen, it’s easy to talk to Nash about the possibility of meeting. It’s easy to imagine an offline friendship, us studying for midterms together at the library and going to book events in the evenings. It’s easy to imagine because it’s theoretical. We both have to get into NYU first. It’s not real until that happens, and there are so many ways it could not. BookCon feels like an even bigger long shot. One of us getting it would be insanely lucky. Both of us? Impossible. There’s every possibility none of it will ever be real.

I’m not ready for real. How can I be certain the truth that is me won’t be a total letdown? I imagine the flash of disappointment that crosses his face when I tell him who I am. His disappointment—it would ruin me. I can’t deal with that.

So for now, I won’t.

I have very strong feelings about deception storylines despite loving You’ve Got Mail retellings. What I Like About You was advertised to me as a YGM retelling by an online mutual. I cannot say this emphatically enough: IT IS NOT. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks is shitty but at least he has a reason for lying to Meg Ryan about their online friendship! They’re enemies in real life; he doesn’t want to tell her the truth and have her hate all of him. It is the exact opposite situation in What I Like About You: Nash and Halle are online BFFs (and eventually friends in real life), but the reason to lie becomes less and less convincing as the book goes on.

Halle’s reasoning of “But I don’t want things to change/I don’t want the book world to know the real me/Nash won’t like the real me” doesn’t hold water. First, she could’ve told Nash the truth and no one else needed to know (he wouldn’t reveal who she is on social media and she’d still be Kels to her followers). Second, her worries about nepotism don’t make any sense considering she’s already successful. If the book industry wants to hire her as a publicist in the future, it won’t be because of her editor grandma. It’ll be because she has a kickass 20K+ follower platform as a viral teen influencer. Third, why not tell Nash the truth after her fears are proven wrong (spoiler alert: he does like her as a friend in real life)? The lie keeps snowballing; the longer she waits, the more she’s afraid of the fallout and anger. It reaches the point of no return once Halle starts dating Nash and still continues the deception.

Look, I’m not saying that teens can’t be dumb or make silly decisions. I wasn’t a teen that long ago. As my family can attest, I still am dumb and make silly decisions. I’m not the kind of reader who expects teen protagonists to make logical choices. Teens are allowed to be messy and flawed and irrational. Halle’s initial lie didn’t annoy me, but the fact that her self-destructive deception continued until the 85% marker did. I am sympathetic that Halle’s anxiety is through the roof for most of the book; she feels guilty because she knows that she’s in the wrong. If her internal monologue isn’t enough, her lovable brother Ollie acts as the reader’s stand-in and continually warns her about impending doom.

I gripe frequently about how the grovel in a romance novel needs to be proportional to the crime. The worse the crime, the longer/grander the grovel needs to be. I need to soak in remorse/guilt/forgiveness to accept that the MCs have let bygones be bygones. Well, the same rules apply here. Halle’s behavior is atrocious.

Her actions can be summed up as

  1. Act icy cold to Real Nash and brush off any overtures of friendship as Halle;
  2. Lie and ghost all her online friends as Kels (including Online Nash because she feels guilty about their blossoming IRL friendship);
  3. Start dating Nash as Halle while lying; and
  4. Finally get found out by circumstances out of her control.

At this point, the book is nearly over. There’s some remorse and an eventual forgiveness before the HFN, but not enough. The crime:grovel proportion is more like 10:1, not 1:1.

For the HFN to work, especially for me, there needs to be a longer period of apologizing and communication.

Show Spoiler

Nash is furious after the reveal and refuses to talk to Halle. There’s a two-month period of silence condensed into a few chapters. Their first post-breakup conversation occurs in the final five pages of the book. I’m not okay with the “I’m sorry, I forgive you, now let’s kiss” denouement in the last five pages.

It doesn’t redeem the first 85% of bad behavior.

Maybe I’d like the book more if Halle and Nash actually talked in the final 15% (I know, what an unreasonable ask). What I Like About You builds up the deception/guilt storyline to grand heights and then it doesn’t follow through. It’s like slowly riding up a roller coaster, but then you plunge to your death after the tracks taper off at the climax. I’m being melodramatic, but that’s what it felt like!

My second irritation is the YA Book Twitter Drama subplot. All hell breaks loose after one of Halle’s favorite authors, Alanna LaForest, causes a controversy. Halle is torn between participating in the backlash and staying quiet. This decision is complicated because 1) Halle’s blog boosted the author’s debut and contributed to its popularity, 2) Halle’s grandma edited this author’s debut, 3) the movie based on the debut is coming out soon, and 4) One True Pastry already accepted obligations to participate in the movie promo.

You might be wondering what Unforgivable Thing this author said to make all her readers hate her. It’s this:

#1: “While FIREFLIES AND YOU centers on the teen experience, I don’t think it’s fair to assume I wrote this book for teenagers. I want my work to resonate with everyone, whether they’re 13 or 93.”

#2: “And I appreciate my teen following, I truly do. I just don’t think they’re my only audience, and I don’t understand why we put books in a box.”

The online reaction to Alanna’s statement can be summed up as this (paraphrase): Alanna thinks that a teenage audience isn’t good enough because teens are “lesser than” (this isn’t what the author says but it is the implication according to critics). Her comments are also seen as hypocritical because teen influencers (like One True Pastry) are responsible for the debut’s widespread popularity. Book Twitter slams Kels’s silence and floods her mentions with angry tweets.

Alanna later criticizes the film’s marketing/creative team and says that “it’s not just a teen movie.” More Book Twitter anger, more calls for boycotting of the movie, more accusations of Alanna mocking her teen audience in the name of literary merit, more fury/abuse at Kels for staying quiet. This storm just won’t die.

But… unless I missed something drastic, are Alanna’s comments that bad? I’m quoting exactly what the book quoted re: Alanna’s controversial statements. I agree that not just a teen movie implies that there is something inherently bad about teen movies, but it seems perfectly reasonable to say that YA books can have adult appeal. There is so much disproportionate abuse/anger directed at Kels and the author. What I Like About You primarily focuses on the backlash and not Alanna’s actual words. The whole saga is thoroughly bewildering and off-putting. It’s a never-ending regurgitation of what I paraphrased above.

To make things worse, I was furious at Halle’s real-life friends for making her choose between her deceased grandmother and demonstrating online loyalty. At the midnight premiere for Fireflies and You, her so-called friends abandon Halle at the theater because they can’t bear to support an author who “acts like her teen fans are less than.” These friends know that Halle’s grandmother edited the book and how much this movie means to Halle (they graciously grant Halle a “grief pass” for supporting the movie). But good friendship isn’t a requisite in this book. Nope, they abandon Halle at the last minute and then encourage her to leave, too. In the end, no one attends the midnight premiere and this is somehow a good thing.

There’s also a meta aspect that made this storyline unpalatable for me. It feels…. Well, it feels alienating. It’s not a great feeling to have “YA books shouldn’t resonate with adults as they are only written for teens” hammered into my head every ten pages. Am I (a twenty-two year old) not supposed to be reading What I Like About You? Am I the problem here? Would the book or its characters have a problem with my reading this book right now? I honestly don’t know, and the saga made me have an existential crisis! The irony is not lost on me. I was exhausted, stressed, and pensive as my brain flipped from Real Book Twitter Drama to Fictional Book Twitter Drama and back again. Those emotions were not a fun experience.

Teen audiences certainly aren’t “lesser than” in any way, but the controversy left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s been a few days, and I’m still confused that I semi-sympathized with the supposed villain in this fake twitter drama. Help!

Honestly, the process of writing this review sent me in circles and made me mad again. It isn’t all frustration; I connected with the voice and the poignant grief storyline. But the bad overpowered the good to an unfortunate degree. Due to the unsatisfying deception that continued far too long, coupled with the headache-inducing Book Twitter storyline, I can’t recommend What I Like About You.

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