By Katy Goodwin-Bates
This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016) is kind of a weird book: not really in terms of its subject matter, but in its delivery. It is deceptively slight–just 230 pages–with very short chapters and a relatively simple style, yet conveys some of the most complex emotional thinking I’ve seen in YA. Nowlin somehow manages to convey this with sparse narrative and unadorned dialogue, within a story you can easily read in a single sitting. (Incidentally, this is how I read it, and it was a bad idea, because it meant I stayed up too late and then couldn’t get to sleep because I was drafting this review in my head. Don’t try this at home.)
Nowlin’s book bears more than a little resemblance to another book I’ve recently reviewed here at Fourth and Sycamore: like Emily Franklin’s Last Night at the Circle Cinema, which was this book’s equivalent in length, it focuses intently on a trio of teens involved in a complex love triangle figuring out their futures. The characters in question in This Song is (Not) For You are long-time best friends Ramona and Sam, who make up April and the Rain, a band with one internet groupie. This pair, secretly in love with each other, are soon joined by Tom, and the plot thickens. It’s a bit less subtle than Franklin’s book, although Nowlin achieves a level of slow-burning intensity which avoids the much-maligned “insta-love” cliché and resembles a more believable attachment between the trio.
Have you ever met someone and you could feel that they were going to be important to you? It’s like you never knew it, but you’ve been waiting your whole life to meet this person, and you recognize him with the same ease that you recognize your reflection.
That happened to me once. – page 1
The chapters alternate between the three protagonists as narrator, and with each chapter only being a couple of pages long, this does sometimes make the reader’s head spin a little bit. Structurally, however, it’s an effective way of showing the speed with which attachments form, adding to the intensity of feeling on display. There’s a simplicity to lines like Ramona’s declaration that, “if it wasn’t for Sam and the band, I’d have gone crazy years ago,” which might make a cynical adult reader groan, but this is followed with the far more profound, “I’ve made it clear that high school is an abysmal den of idiocy, right?” (page 26) which adds more complex layers to the character. Fittingly for a book in which music is such a key focus, the narrative occasionally shifts into something more like poetry or lyrics, exemplifying the artistic impulses which drive Ramona, Sam, and Tom.
I adore this long stand of black and white,
the vibration and rumbles
of this instrument,
the pedals under my feet. – page 99
An archetype I particularly loathe in YA is the manic pixie girl, and Ramona occasionally steps a little too close to the line in this respect. Nowlin manages to sidestep this, however, by giving both Ramona and Tom aspects of the trope in a way which makes both of them charmingly quirky rather than downright annoying. Tom, for example, is on a mission to decorate public spaces with glitter, which is possibly the most manic pixie thing I’ve ever encountered, but this is miraculously made tolerable.
This Song is (Not) For You is probably most notable for its representation of diverse sexuality and relationships, and it does so in a way that isn’t heavy-handed and doesn’t seem to be there just to tick a box. I liked the way in which the characters make the decisions which suit them, rather than the ones society expects of them. There’s even a self-awareness to the potential cliches of the romantic storyline, with Ramona’s dad describing the love triangle concept as, “a common enough trope in modern storytelling. Almost as common as the platonic friends who are secretly in love.” (page 118)
With This Song Is (Not) For You, Laura Nowlin does a few things which are unusual in YA, not least of which is the parentheses in the title; I am all for the innovative use of punctuation. It’s a sweet and relatable story which also gives interesting alternatives to the options with which teens are conventionally presented.
This Song Is (Not) for You will be available soon at GPL.