Themes in Young Adult Literature: Love

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2798

Titles Discussed

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman

Thematic Overview

Many teenagers experience their first romantic relationship during their adolescent years. Although it is rare for these romances to last beyond the end of high school, the combination...

(The entire section contains 2798 words.)

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Titles Discussed

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

Son of the Mob by Gordon Korman

Thematic Overview

Many teenagers experience their first romantic relationship during their adolescent years. Although it is rare for these romances to last beyond the end of high school, the combination of bodily and hormonal changes through puberty and increased independence and emotional maturity makes the experience of adolescent love particularly intense. Hormonally, strong physical attraction triggers adrenaline, which increases excitement, and serotonin, which increases relaxation and blissful feelings. At the same time, the feeling of being in love affects testosterone in both men and women—while men experience lowered testosterone levels, female testosterone levels increase. For teenagers who are in the middle of experiencing drastic and disorienting changes in their bodies, this additional hormonal shift can feel especially intense, which in part explains the over-the-top, dramatic emotions often associated with the teenage concept of love and romance.

As so many people experience their first romantic relationships during adolescence, YA literature has consistently featured love as a major theme. While writers of the 1960s and 1970s were more likely to explore nonsexual and restrained relationships, limiting themselves to chaste kissing and longing, from the 1970s onward, authors were increasingly willing to craft characters who not only went on a few dates but initiated physical and sexual relationships of an intensity to match their emotional connection. Critically lauded novels such as Judy Blume's Forever (1975) and Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind (1982) paved the way for sexualized romances as well as gay characters, facing constant censorship for the unapologetic choices of their young protagonists. At the same time, some of the best-selling novels of the 1980s and 1990s were series that focused primarily on young romance, such as Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High series. Even YA novels not explicitly concerned with love often contain romantic subplots, with love providing motivation for characters across science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and similar subgenres.

While the intense emotions associated with love make romance a rich topic for writers, there are other reasons for its prevalence in YA novels. To fall in love is also widely considered a rite of passage into adulthood. This view is true despite the nature of the romance, from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts (2001), in which romance is more of an idea than a reality, to Gordon Korman's Son of the Mob (2002), in which love creates a conflict between the protagonist and the home. Even the healthy love at the center of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park (2013) is complicated by the pressures from both peers and adults. Romantic connections also provide teenagers with an opportunity to imagine an independent future—living as adults and possibly cohabitating with a romantic partner. As such, romance is not simply an obsession with another person but also an engagement with who the teenager might become in the future—how the adult self might be formed and impacted by the love of another.

Works

Sloppy Firsts is not so much a novel about experiencing first love as it is a novel about learning to recognize when the potential for love presents itself. The protagonist, Jessica Darling, is a withdrawn and moody teenager who retreats further from peers and family when her best friend, Hope, moves away during their sophomore year of high school. Jessica's remaining friends, whom she calls the Clueless Crew, are boy-obsessed girls who spend their lunch period going over fashion magazines. Writing sporadic letters to Hope, Jessica struggles to make any true connections at school, and while she nurtures a crush on a popular senior boy named Paul, she fails to find anyone she actually wants to date. Instead, her attention drifts among a number of boys who show varying forms of interest in her. There is an old friend, Scotty, who is obviously in love with her; Pierre, a somewhat nerdy freshman she nicknames Pepe Le Pew, whom she admires but does not take seriously as a prospect; and a drug-dealing troublemaker named Marcus, who suddenly begins to give her unexpected flirtatious attention but who was also involved in Hope's brother's drug overdose. As Jessica's sister prepares for marriage, Jessica finds herself more and more incapable of actual human connection, instead lingering on her disappointment with others and the fleeting ideas that Paul or Scotty might make a proper boyfriend. In junior year, however, Marcus returns to school a changed person, having been identified as a genius and moved into honors courses. There, Jessica and Marcus connect as friends, and by the end of the novel, she decides to be honest about her feelings and to enter into a relationship with him.

In contrast to many romantic, idealized depictions of first love and the joys it offers, Jessica's experience with romance is instead marked by pessimism, discomfort, and false starts—it is not until the very end of the novel, in fact, that she finally decides to actually get together with Marcus. For Jessica, this is a process by which she must first learn to be true to herself and to her own feelings in order to have a sincere, loving relationship with another person. She figures this out less by actually spending time with Marcus and instead by analyzing the variety of other insincere relationships she constructs in her life. The boy she feels she loves, for instance, is Paul, a senior she only knows from a distance. Therefore, she is able to idealize him as a perfect boyfriend. This construction fails, however, when Paul graduates high school and comes out as gay. She likewise considers her longtime admirer, Scotty, to be a safe option, always available as a boyfriend if she decides she needs one. When she finally does ask him on a date, however, Scotty has stopped carrying his torch for Jessica and has a girlfriend.

Even the platonic relationships Jessica has with her female friends are largely constructed out of lies and fantasy, as she purports to loathe the Clueless Crew yet realizes toward the close of the novel that one of those girls, Bridget, is actually a caring and attentive friend who feels similarly disconnected from the peer group. While Jessica has clear ideas about who she is and what romance should be, Marcus still manages to connect with her. Over time she realizes that the depth and honesty of the conversations they share matter much more than the sardonic ideals she has chosen to live her life by. In the end, she finds herself prepared, if not for love itself, then for the possibility of love with all of its risks and uncertainties. With Marcus having announced his feelings for her, she panics, but she is determined to pursue the relationship anyway.

Vincent, the protagonist of Son of the Mob, does not have trouble identifying the person he loves. Instead, he must navigate the differences in their lives and home environments in order to experience a truly loving relationship. Vincent's father, older brother, and relatives all work in organized crime. While Vincent refuses to go into the family business, he still sees his life constantly shaped by the family's illegal activities. After realizing during a football game that his opponents are afraid to tackle him because of his father's reputation, Vincent storms off the field and runs into Kendra, a classmate who writes for the school newspaper. Quickly, Kendra and Vincent realize they have feelings for each other, but just as quickly, Vincent learns that Kendra's father works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and has been investigating his own family for years. Hoping to keep the fact of the relationship secret from his family and his family's business secret from Kendra, Vincent nonetheless pursues the strong feelings he holds for her. He also finds himself wrapped up in organized crime after trying to help a hapless gambler in his father's debt, only to end up being taken advantage of again and again. In the end, Vincent is able to find a way to help out the gambler, find an informant in the family (and help him escape safely), and impress his father. His competency and independence established, he reasserts his choice to stay out of organized crime while taking his relationship with Kendra public at last.

Through the compelling true-crime narrative, Son of the Mob draws attention to the fact that teenage romance typically marks a significant break between the family life at home and the independent life the young adult is beginning to establish. Although critical of organized crime, Vincent has also learned to establish a form of peace with his family's business over time, doing his best to ignore that reality so that he might pursue his own interests. With Kendra, however, this uneasy truce becomes impossible—in order for Vincent to pursue this new love, he actively puts his family and his new girlfriend at risk. Further, he realizes the necessity of severing his relationship to organized crime in order to develop a romantic relationship that is honest to himself.

The tension between FBI agent and organized crime boss, then, exaggerates many of the emotional considerations teenagers face when falling in love, with the act of turning away from the home life feeling like a betrayal of what came before. It is also, however, an opportunity for self-growth and positive change. Motivated by the love he feels for Kendra, Vincent realizes he must take action—driven by his own morals and goals—if he is to be with her. As such, he manages to reveal the relationship to his father through the same conversation in which he helps the FBI informant escape the city and clarifies that his involvement with the family business has ended. His maturity evidenced, he is able to return to Kendra, affirming his independence and his ongoing relationship with a home life he is leaving but still honoring with a complicated respect.

Home life likewise complicates the love that blossoms between the two protagonists of Eleanor & Park. For Eleanor, however, this is a process by which she must not only learn that she is deserving of love, but also that love can exist in a substantive and healthy way. Set in the 1980s, Eleanor and Park meet each other as two misfits in a small town, with Park offering Eleanor a seat on the bus during her first day of school. Eleanor had spent the past year staying with relatives, abandoned there by her mother, but has now returned to her tiny home, sharing a room with four siblings and living in constant fear of her abusive stepfather. When Park sees Eleanor's unconventional style (bright red hair and male clothes), he feels affection for her, and that affection blossoms through their shared love of music and comics.

Their romance is a rare point of happiness in their lives, particularly for Eleanor, who is bullied at school and tormented at home. While Park is quick to express his love for her, she does not find herself able to return it and even vocalizes doubt about the feasibility of young romance when reading William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597) in class. At Park's home, she is safe from her family and witnesses Park's parents' stable and loving relationship, which feels foreign to her. When Eleanor's stepfather learns that she has been seeing Park, however, he flies into a rage, and Eleanor fears both violence and sexual assault from the alcoholic man. With the support of Park's family, the two teenagers drive Eleanor to the door of an uncle several states away. Although they say goodbye and Eleanor at first fails to return communication she receives from Park, she eventually mails him a postcard, with the end of the novel suggesting that it might finally announce her love for him.

While Eleanor has the more difficult home and school life by far, both she and Park find in each other a romance that signifies escape, safety, and understanding, rather than simply pure physical passion or immature fun. In this way, Eleanor & Park is about the ability of two teenagers to build a world together, apart not only from their troubled home lives, but from school and the bullying they experience from peers. The book emphasizes this concept through its third-person omniscient narration. At the start of the novel, the narrative voice lingers on one character at a time for multiple pages, revealing their troubled pasts as well as the attraction they feel for one another. As it progresses, however, the switches between characters come more and more frequently, until there are moments when sentences change focus so quickly it seems as though the narrator is in both of their minds at once. This is an intensity that, while fueled by physical longing, is not defined by sexuality.

In the end, the world that Eleanor and Park are able to create together does offer salvation from Eleanor's abusive home, even if it is a salvation that necessitates their separation from one another. Using a vehicle borrowed from Park's parents (symbolically, a loan from the best example of sustained and mutually respectful love in the novel), they are able to extend their safe and supportive bubble, placing Eleanor in a new and hopefully supportive home. While there is deep sadness in their separation, the postcard sent by Eleanor with the implied message of “I love you” also suggests optimism. In this ambiguity, there is the possibility that, safe from her stepfather, Eleanor has learned that she deserves and can express love. True to the complexity of the novel, however, this is kept not as a certainty but as a truth only shared by the two main characters.

Conclusions

In the era of massively popular YA novels and movie franchises like the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight series, the inclusion of a love story seems to be all but a requirement. Romantic plotlines can be used to add an additional emotional complexity and sense of suspense to novels that are otherwise driven by action and adventure. Likewise, YA romances themselves remain a popular subgenre with readers, even as they receive less critical or academic attention, with Gossip Girls and similar series regularly charting on best seller lists.

As Park suggests when discussing Romeo and Juliet in class, there is a special thrill and joy that readers experience through narratives of first love. Emotional upheavals, bolstered independence, physical passion, and hormonal drives are all not only present in the lives of young adults, but present with an intensity that has likely never been felt before. For young adults in the twenty-first century, this experience often comes with altered implications than it did in the past. According to the Pew Research Center, only 51 percent of adults were married in 2011. Similarly, those who do get married are likely to have a number of romantic partnerships (including cohabitation) before marriage. As many young adults are also likely to engage in sexual relationships at earlier ages than was common throughout most of the twentieth century, the expectations of what love means, exactly, have clearly shifted. Rather than a disbelief in love, this signals an understanding that the emotional and physical intensity of love is valuable but not necessarily permanent, with the romantic love of adolescence likely to be only one instance of many loves throughout life.

For YA novels, this shifting perspective indicates a different type of maturity on the part of readers. Plots are less likely to focus exclusively on confusing feelings and promises of eternity, instead showing characters like those discussed above, cynical but also willing to take the dive into the complexities of romance. The emotional highs and lows of love are constants throughout literature and art. YA novels in the twenty-first century are no exception—they simply provide a wider range of skepticism, complexity, and hope than was offered to young adults in the past, and in turn celebrate a wider range of possibilities for what love can mean, one romance at a time.

Further Reading

  • Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Holt, 2004. Print.
  • Hedeen, Katrina, and Rachel L. Smith. “What Makes a Good YA Love Story?” Horn Book Magazine May/June 2013: 48–54. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=87024783&site=lrc-live>.

Bibliography

  • Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: ALA, 2011. Print.
  • Cohn, D'Vera. “Love and Marriage.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/02/13/love-and-marriage/>.
  • Feiring, Candice. “Concepts of Romance in 15-Year-Old Adolescents.” Journal of Research on Adolescence (Lawrence Erlbaum) 6.2 (1996): 181–200. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=17699763>.
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