I’m basically done pretending that I’m going to stop blogging about Unspoken
and how it’s perfect in every way. This is actually part of my evil master plan to convince every one of my followers to go buy it and read it, so that when book two comes out I’m not the alone while drowning in my own tears fangirling over how awesome it is.
I reined myself in a lot while talking about characters in my previous post on this book, and I realized that I actually wanted to do that some more. Besides, my English degree is (possibly literally) rotting away on the shelf, and what better way to keep my skills fresh than to wave my hands frantically through the air and talk about things that have earned my eternal devotion?*
What I want to talk about today is romance, romanticism, and cliche. I’ve said before that I think one of Sarah Rees Brennan’s strengths as an author is that she takes cliches of character (and genre) and makes them serve her, while still doing a lot to twist the cliches, and subvert them, and give the characters depth beyond the tropes they might occupy. Tropes exist for a reason, they appeal to readers for a reason, but I’ve always admired an author who can both use the tropes to his or her advantage and spin them around and play with them when needs must.
So let’s say that we have two characters. One is a Bad Boy, with a leather jacket and a motorcycle that he drives like potentially deadly motorcycle crashes are the new fall fashion. He’s mad, bad, and dangerous to know; he might’ve even killed someone. His own mother is afraid of him, he picks fights with teams of boys who play a sport involving hitting things with wooden mallets, and even his well-intentioned guidance counselor struggles with the question of whether or not he’s too lost to save. The other character is the Intrepid Girl Reporter, who’s maybe a little bit strange but also indefatigably cheerful and alarmingly energetic. She wears pretty dresses, has a loving family and a few supportive friends, and might seek out Danger and Adventure, but mostly does so with the intention of asking Danger for an exclusive.
The conventions of genre tell us what to expect when it comes to how these two characters view romance or how much they romanticize the world around them. He will probably have a heart of gold, but be very cagey about this human attachment thing that all the cool kids are doing. She will be the long-suffering savior who can see the good man beneath all the rage issues and violent tendencies. (And I, I will spend several hundred pages yelling at the heroine about Bad Life Choices, no matter how much I enjoy the book otherwise.)**
Except it doesn’t really play out that way, mostly because — well, remember what I said about how this author uses cliches?***
*There will be citations and everything. I have a sickness.
**Rees Brennan has said a few times that she’s not making promises about Jared and Kami ending up together, but since this essay is more about how two characters treat romance within the context of the first book and the related short stories, rather than their Great and Eternal Love or anything like that, end results aren’t too relevant to me right now.
***Fair warning: Like most analysis of a novel, this is unrepentant fan meta and wild, wild conjecture. I will probably a) get things wrong, and b) forget things, because I didn’t do the smart plan and read a second time before writing this. Also, I feel strongly that every single lit professor I ever had a class with just developed a spontaneous migraine, and they have no idea why.
Cut for spoilers; read on if you dare.
So, you have these two characters, and for as long as they can remember, they’ve been in each other’s heads. Neither knows for certain that the other is real, until suddenly they do know that. The possibility that one or both characters will read a certain amount of romanticism into their inexplicable connection is pretty much a given, and I think the assumption is generally going to be that the jaded, angry character is not going to be the one who goes, “obvs soul mates!”
Only, you know, he does.
If one of these two is a romantic at heart, it’s Jared. The very first explanation he reaches for when trying to untangle the fact that his imaginary friend is less than imaginary is that they’re romantically fated: “And we’ve found each other. […] So, this is, like, fate. Isn’t it? Soul mates. Isn’t it?” (Unspoken 77) Note the repeated question marks; Jared wants Kami to agree with him, possibly because he’s no more sure of his assessment of the situation than she is. He wants to believe that this explanation for their bond is the correct one, and I think that’s less about Kami — this new Kami, at least, who is suddenly a real girl and not just a voice in his head — than it is about Jared’s desire to view the connection between them as something positive while simultaneously putting a label to it (boyfriend/girlfriend) that allows him a claim to her time and affection more substantial than, “my not-so-imaginary friend.” Regardless of Jared’s actual motivation, I think it’s telling that the first possibility Jared comes up with is an incredibly quixotic one, and that a great deal can be read into his character based on it.
He’s also the one who’s more resistant to the idea of there being a less romantic, more potentially horrifying explanation for their bond. When Kami suggests that their bond might be more satanic than star-crossed (by which I mean that she suggests that there might be a magical or ritualistic explanation, not that it’s actually satanism; I just liked the alliteration. I’m weak!), he leaps to the defensive, accusing her of equating their connection to “some sick freak killing animals […] That’s what you think of us” (170). This is about midway through the novel, well beyond the first impulsive desire to find an explanation, any explanation. What that says to me is that Jared’s tendency toward a more romantic world view is just that — a tendency, as deeply ingrained in him as his desire to court danger and his cold shoulder.
Even after the source of the bond between Jared and Kami is revealed to be unromantic in nature, and its continued existence potentially life-threatening to Jared, Jared refuses to break it. It’s worth noting that here, as elsewhere, the language Jared uses — “I don’t want options,” “You are the source of everything for me” (287-88) — is incredibly romantically loaded. I’m not presuming that at this point what he feels for Kami is of a romantic nature, but the language he chooses to express himself has a certain exclusivity to it generally associated romance. In fiction, a person doesn’t usually tell a best friend or a parent that he or she is, “the first, the last, [the] everything” (White ln. 1); this kind of language is common parlance for romance, whether or not Jared intends to express feelings of a romantic nature, or even knows if what he’s feeling is romantic in nature.
The views he expresses regarding the connection he shares with Kami are the most present evidence of Jared’s more romantic turn of mind, but not the only ones. We’re told that the books he likes are, “about made-up olden days when the world made sense, about death and love and honor” (174). His guidance counselor in The Spring Before I Met You has to remind him that it’s best to make sure that someone wants help before charging in to the rescue. This indicates to me that, while Jared might view a lot of the world and a lot of people with well-earned jadedness, he’s also internalized a lot of the more romantic notions about how people are supposed to behave. There’s a disconnect here, between what he knows the world to be and what he wants it to be.
Very often, Kami’s point of view seems set up to counterbalance the more romantic tendencies that Jared has. That’s not to say that she’s always level-headed and pragmatic — because boy, is she not — but more often than not, she’s the one considering the broader implications of things like the connection between her and Jared, dating, and sexuality. When Jared suggests that they date (because obvs soul mates), Kami essentially plays sexy times chicken with him until he realizes the error of his ways.
“As in boyfriend and girlfriend?” Kami pursued. “Sweethearts? Who canoodle?”
Jared nodded again, even more cautiously.
“Well, mi amore, this is awesome news! Let’s get right on that,” said Kami, and began to undo the buttons of her blouse.
Jared sucked breath out of a horrified void and shouted, “Stop that!” (77-8)
Note that Jared has not considered what dating will actually, in most cases, involve. Namely, canoodling. Note that Kami has, and that, like Jared’s mad grab for soul mates, she thinks of it almost immediately. When Jared proposes a romanticized read on a situation, Kami is the one to ground that reading in the basics — namely, that dating generally involves getting to second base and kissing and stuff.
His more romanticized view of dating and her more pragmatic view of the same make appearances elsewhere. In The Spring Before I Met You, Jared is asked if he wants a girlfriend. His response (one of them) is, “There isn’t anyone at school. I don’t want a girlfriend” (7). I think there’s something to be read into the fact that he first mentions that there isn’t anyone at the school, and that in a previous passage he dismisses the idea based on all the girls at school thinking that he killed someone, before he gets around to the flat “no, do not want.” I think that this can be read less as the refusal of dating as a whole, and more as the realization that few romantic relationships are going to be able to rival the level of intimacy and trust he has with Kami, even if, at this point in the story, there’s the possibility that he’s just made her up in his head.
During the same conversation, he’s asked if Kami wants a boyfriend. His response is, “I guess she does” (ibid). I’d say that the answer is, “yes.” Not unhealthily so, not to the point of pursuing romantic attachments above her other goals, but she’s interested in dating in a way that Jared just doesn’t seem to be. More than that, she has a surprisingly toned down viewpoint on how romance and dating actually operate.While she’s on her date with Ash, she thinks that,
She knew how this date should have gone. She would have sneaked looks over at Ash. A few times their gazes would have met and parted after an instant too long. She would have left her hand lying on the arm of the seat invitingly, and he would have taken it. (Unspoken 176)
Kami isn’t thinking of grand romantic kisses or intense bonds of trust and affection; she’s thinking about how nice it would be to have a normal date, with all the normal date awkwardness and tension. The closest we get to a grand romantic fantasy from her is disappointment that the end of her first romantic relationship was so “anticlimactic,” because she was, “kind of hoping [her] first breakup would involve […] slapping someone in the face with a napkin and pouring red wine over their head” (Summer 12). In a lot of ways, while Kami’s way of thinking of romantic relationships varies a good deal from Jared’s, I think it’s probably drawn from the same source. If Jared dismisses romantic relationships because they won’t provide him with the intimacy he craves, then Kami treats them without any sense of grand and sweeping romantic drama because she already has loving intimacy from Jared. As she tells a coworker in The Summer Before I Met You, “The thing is, I’ve got love […] I guess what I wanted was… to be chosen” (ibid). Kami has love, and intimacy, but what she doesn’t have from Jared is the assurance that he’s chosen her, and that’s something she craves — a fact which makes the ending of the novel all the more heart-wrenching.
Sexuality also plays a bit more into Kami’s view of romance than it does into Jared’s. As mentioned above, it’s the first rebuttal she thinks of when trying to convince him that dating isn’t an option right at that moment. Throughout Unspoken, one of the major things that keeps her from pursuing a relationship with Jared is his ongoing refusal to touch her. In The Summer Before I Met You, she makes an offhanded comment about her first boyfriend:
“Yeah, relationships aren’t all they’re cracked up to be,” Kami said. “All ‘Hey, watch it, busy hands, naughty places.’” She paused for a pensive moment. “That Claud was such a prude.” (ibid)
It’s played for laughs, but I think there’s still the possibility of a serious reading in this: that sexuality is important to Kami, and an important part of a romantic relationship (and I could probably write a whole ‘nother essay about how pleased I am to see a YA heroine acknowledging her own sexuality and its importance to her). Jared, for all that he expresses a desire to be a floozy at some point in the future, seems a bit more disconnected from his sexuality and the role it might play in any romantic relationship he forms; he’s disturbed when Kami brings it up during their early discussion on dating, and beyond that, the most sexualized comments we get from him are his observation that Holly is hot and his admission that he used to flirt while hustling pool to distract the opposition.
Kami’s view of the bond she shares with Jared is also less romanticized than his is. Late in the novel, she admits to Jared that, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t know the shape of myself without you […] Sometimes I feel like you don’t know the shape of yourself” (Unspoken 288). Kami, more than Jared, worries about the implications that their bond has on their individuality and independence. Her concerns about their closeness and how it might hinder their ability to live lives full of anything that isn’t each other is an undercurrent throughout the entire novel, and a stark contrast to the way that Jared feels about their bond, to the point where this is the source of most of the conflict between the two characters. Even thought Kami isn’t sure she wants to rid herself of the bond, Jared is prone to taking even the contemplation of it as a betrayal.
I think some of this hearkens back to Jared having some pretty set views of how the world is supposed to work, even if it almost never does, and how people are supposed to act, even if they almost never do. Jared idealizes, and romanticizes, which means that if Kami is the one person who trusts and loves him unreservedly, then any moment of doubt or any passing desire for separation is a deep betrayal, because that’s not how someone who trusts and loves you is supposed to act. Kami, I suspect, has a little more room for gray areas of trust and affection in her world view.
The beautiful thing — the truly beautiful thing — is that there are reasons for both of them to feel this way. I mentioned at the start of this ridiculously long essay that I always admire it when an author can both use and subvert cliches, but I think it takes a particularly skilled author to do that and also give us believable characterization reasons to support the subversion. I never get the impression that Rees Brennan is just waving her hand and going, “subverting tropes because it’s cool!” I don’t really see the authorial intent at all, because there are reasons provided, good reasons, for why Jared and Kami might feel and think this way. Jared is, above all other things, isolated. It makes sense that he would latch on to this bond with Kami so much more strongly than she does, because it is literally all he has — unless one counts the mother who dislikes him, the father who beats him, the peers who fear him, and the family that he’s never known (and I don’t, and I don’t think he does either). Given his history of abuse and watching his mother be abused, there are also good reasons for him to latch on to a more romanticized view of how things ought to be. Kami, meanwhile, has probably been more isolated than she should be as a result of her connection to Jared — people in town think she’s weird because she talks to herself and still believes in her imaginary friend — but she also has a loving family and supportive friends. She has a small but solid network of love and intimacy that Jared doesn’t, and I think that’s part of what’s allowed her to develop a sense of herself as an individual outside of their bond. The connection between them has been an anchor for Jared, a source of strength, and it’s been that for Kami too, but it’s also, on occasion, weighed her down. As such, I end up feeling like the viewpoints they’ve developed, about the bond and about the wold around them, romantic or unromantic or somewhere in between, are fully supported by the rest of what I know about them as characters.
So there are these tropes, these things that I go in expecting from a novel that boasts a jaded Bad Boy and a cheerful Intrepid Girl Reporter. I didn’t find them in Unspoken and, more than that, I found some awfully good reasons for these particular characters not to engage with these particular tropes. That, to me, says that these are fully realized characters, perhaps built around a cliche but not bound by it. And that, like I said, is a beautiful thing.
Rees Brennan, Sarah. The Spring Before I Met You. Amazon, Sept. 2012. Web. Source.
Rees Brennan, Sarah. The Summer Before I Met You. Oblong Books, Sept. 2012. Web. Source.
Rees Brennan, Sarah. Unspoken. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
White, Barry. The First, The Last, My Everything. ST Lyrics, Sept. 2012. Web. Source.