I hadn’t had many people in my life who made me feel special. You know what happens after awhile? You start to wonder if you matter.
I mean, really and truly matter.
And the more time that goes by, the harder it is to believe that you do.
Lisa Schroeder has quickly become one of the select few authors whose books I love to revisit.
The Day Before, her 2011 novel in verse is one of my all-time favorites reads and I often pull it from the shelf in my office (uh, I just realized that “my” copy of this book is actually Laura’s—whoops!) and read a couple of passages at random.
Lisa’s books work for me in a way that a lot of contemporary YA novels do not. She talks about families and life and friendship and love in a way that’s universally understandable, regardless of whether you’re 15 or 35 or 55. There’s a thread of goodness that runs through her stories, and each has left me feeling a bit better about the world. None of this is what’s popular and trendy in teen fiction, so her books are a breath of fresh air on the crowded teen fiction shelves.
With that said, I was admittedly sad when I learned that her 2012 young adult novel, Falling for You, wasn’t a verse novel. I love verse, and Lisa’s verse novels are some of my favorites.
However, after reading Falling for You, I’m actually quite happy that Lisa chose to write this novel in traditional prose because it will allow verse-averse readers to try one of her books and perhaps the numerous poems in Falling for You will be a gateway to her four verse novels.
Rae is a teen in a small-ish town in Oregon. She works hard at a flower shop, Full Bloom, where her coworkers and the other people who work at the nearby businesses are as much her family as her actual family—perhaps more. She lives in a challenging home environment where money is always tight and made tighter when her stepfather, whose job loss early in the novel creates further financial pressures and tensions in Rae’s household.
At the same time, Rae quickly becomes involved with Nathan, the new boy at school whose devotion sends off alarms bells for Rae. She quickly realizes that this relationship is too much, too fast and the situation frightens her. Meanwhile, her friend Leo, who’s home schooled and works in his family’s coffee shop near Full Bloom, senses that things are wrong in Rae’s life, and desperately wishes to help her, if only she’ll let him. Leo—whose life has a lot of complications as well—introduces Rae to his hobby of making YouTube videos and his positive outlet seems to subconsciously inspire Rae to take her poetry more seriously.
These events all happen in the form of extended flashbacks, which make up the bulk of Falling for You. In the present, we know that Rae is injured and in an intensive care unit, clinging to life. Interspersed within both are poems written by Rae which are published in the poetry section of her school newspaper. These poems lend further insight into Rae’s real feelings about her family, her boyfriends, friends and job—through these poems we see the real Rae.
I’m not the floor
to be walked on
or the hammer
to be used.
I’m not the choir
to sing your praises
or the commercials
to be ignored.
I’m the baby bird
wanting to fly
and the orchid
starting to bloom.
The overarching theme in this surprisingly complex and dark story is the tension between darkness and light.
It’s a literal experience for Rae as she hovers between life and death, but it’s true in terms of her daily life. Her job at the flower shop and the people in brings her close to provides her with so much joy and happiness. On the other hand, she goes home to a family in shambles, where home feels unsafe, and her boyfriend is frightening and seemingly unstable. Writing brings her comfort amidst these tensions, but that may not be enough to pull her out of the bleakness she confronts as the events of Falling for You unfurl.
Falling for You not only deals with Rae’s frightening relationship with her boyfriend Nathan, it takes an unflinching look at a troubled family. Rae’s mother is a woman who married a bad guy in hopes that he would take care of her. He’s lazy and demanding, expecting that Rae cook his meals while her mother works evenings. He’s unkind and that meanness escalates as he loses his job and the family’s tenuous financial situation reaches a breaking point.
He came closer to me. “You’ll give me your paycheck on paydays. The first and the fifteenth, isn’t it? I’ll decide how much money you need for your girl crap.”
I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Why should I hand it over to you?” I waved my hand at the empty cans. “You’ll just throw it away on beer.”
Dean reached out and slapped me hard across the face. I tottered back and landed against the stove. My cheek burned. Tears pushed against my eyelids, wanting to escape. Too bad. I wouldn’t let them. If I was trapped, so were they.
I was surprised by what Dean, the stepfather, was involved in and the direction his story went, and I have to say, I’m glad to see this particular issue addressed in a novel for teens, because it’s a common and destructive problem. (Apologies for the vagueries—but it would be a significant spoiler to say what it is.)
Another notable element to Falling for You is Rae’s relationship with her coworkers.
Falling for You reminded me a bit of Good Oil (aka Love and Other Perishable Items) by Laura Buzo in that it captures the unusual relationships that develop in workplaces. Full Bloom’s tiny cadre of employees and the owner are endearing and love Rae like she’s family, and in a sense they are her family. YA novels tend to focus on just a few types of relations: family, romance and similarly-aged friends—hooray for including the first work colleague relationships!
The sweet-smelling shop has walls the color of sunshine and shelves filled with potted plants and flowers. It gave me a warm, fuzzy felling when I walked in, like always.
I could see Nina in the back workroom through the large picture window behind the long front counter. She sat with a pile of paperwork in front of her and her laptop.
“Hey Nina. How’s it going?” I asked as I walked through the workroom door.
“It’s been quite all day,” she said, glancing up at me. “So I’m paying bills. Man, do I hate paying bills. But Uranus is finally leaving my second house, which rules earned income. Uranus is volatile, so it’s a good thing it’s leaving. More money should start coming in now, right?”
I curled my lips in, trying not to giggle. “Nina, I’m sorry, but I’m still back at ‘Uranus is volatile.’” She could talk astrology to me all she wanted, but as soon as she mentioned Uranus, it was over.
“All right, all right. I’ll keep my thoughts about Uranus to myself.”
The thing that struck me most about Falling for You is that it has many of the issues found in novels for teen—family problems, bad romance, growing up—but so often in YA novels there are clear lines between good characters and bad, and in this one, yes, there are some people who do really despicable things, but I also felt sympathy for these characters, as did Rae. Despite that loose ends are tied up a bit too neatly for my usual comfort, there’s emotional complexity to this story that reminded me of Sarah Ockler and Sarah Dessen’s books.
Because of that, I worry that readers may not pick up Falling for You. Like all of Lisa’s books, it goes against the trend that’s so popular in contemporary YA fiction at the moment: the extremely dramatic storyline. There are some Big Things that happen in the book, but they’re not self-perpetuated, they’re not over-wrought.
And in that sense, despite the darker themes of Falling for You, it’s a gentle book that in the end left me feeling enveloped by a spirit of goodness.
FNL Character Rating: Matt Saracen (I had a big debate between Becki Sproles & Matty on this one.)