Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Boyfriend List

Todd, who is also known as my boyfriend, contributed this post on The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart. To contribute a review or other literary musings to Attic Salt, e-mail atticsaltblog@gmail.com.


A friend of mine (and contributor for The Misfits' Book Club) has been relentlessly throwing young adult fiction at me all year. Her most recent recommendation was the work of E. Lockhart, who's had her name on seven books in four years with an eighth due in 2010. Her 2005 debut was The Boyfriend List, which follows the exploits of high schooler Ruby Oliver as she suffers through a particularly heartbreaking sophomore year. This is the first in a series. If you told me last week I was going to get really into the four-book saga of a heartsick fifteen-year-old girl, I might've doubted you.

The book is structured against Ruby's list of the fifteen boys that have been, in one way or another, subject to her affections. Each gets his own chapter as Ruby dissects the relationships (or lack thereof) with her therapist. Sure, it sounds groan-worthy, but the novel, like any good work unfairly ghettoized onto that "young adult" shelf, quickly transcends its gimmickry thanks in part to expert plotting but mostly to Lockhart's uncanny ear for her young protagonist's voice.

Ruby is a dazzling creation. She makes coy use of footnotes and slang and has favorite words that she overuses. Ruby is the most lifelike narrator I've read in a while, flawed and selfish yet self-aware, in pursuit of self-improvement and validation. She's also profoundly sad and misunderstood, the victim of a social network that emphasizes labels and hierarchies and flourishes through texting and emailing but fails to promote any kind of real communication.

As with most high school-set stories of heartbreak, teenagers' inability to communicate honestly with each other is the thematic focus of The Boyfriend List. Ruby allows herself to be groped in a movie theater by a jock she barely knows (she discovers she kind of likes it); she responds to a sincere display of friendship by Boy #14 with a harmful and cruel "Fuck off." It's one in a string of devastating moments, leading me to desire throughout the story that I might sit Ruby down and impart some brotherly advice.

But the mistakes of adolescence are as easy to rue with perfect hindsight as they are to make, blindly, in the moment. The book is filled with astonishing set pieces that are far more exciting and suspenseful than I would've expected from a first-person coming-of-age story such as this. One breathless sequence revolves around the day the senior class is passing out roses and carnations ordered by friends, crushes, lovers and secret admirers among the underclassmen. Ruby waits all day in the hope that she will receive the right flowers, watching as friends count their stems like so much loose change. It unfolds like the final-act heist in a crime movie.

The Boyfriend List comes across as Mean Girls without the satirical sheen — the harsh truths imparted here with comic relief as opposed to the other way around — and it works just as well. In fact, there are several plot points which mirror that film. It leads up to a girls' room confrontation by two former best friends which poses Ruby on her knees, her lap soaking wet. As symbolism goes, it's pretty weighty for a YA book, which just goes to remind you that you can't ignore something just because you're not in the marketed-to demographic. I have a hundred other books to read, but the sequels to this are going to leap high in priority just as soon as I pay off my overdue fines at the Chicago Public Library.


  1. Oh Todd! This review is the best balm for my wounded YA loving soul. Between your eloquent love for Ruby and for John Green, you're going SUCH A LONG WAY towards soothing the writhing, bitter injustice of all my friends loving Twilight and REFUSING TO READ OTHER YA THAT'S ACTUALLY GOOD.

    Thank you for posting this Amy! I feel so validated. It's just the pick-me-up I needed to help me power through the paper I'm writing on Half Magic. You two may have jointly saved my sorry academic career.

  2. Uh-oh, Amy. We're distracting Cassandra through grad school.

  3. I was always in search of distractions while in grad school, so I'm glad I can help out.

  4. I read this yesterday and liked it a lot - Ruby's voice is wonderful and it brought me back to all the trials and tribulations of high school.

    As you note, the dichotomy between the frequent use of technology designed to ease communication and everyone's inability to really get through to each other is compelling — and something that seems to be worsening the more ways there are to "keep in touch." The greatest cause of Ruby's social alienation is the list that gives the novel its name, but had the majority of the items on the list been discussed with those involved years ago, Ruby wouldn't be suffering the consequences today.