reflection: Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant
[i interviewed Elise Bryant about her book. you can check out our interview on my instagram here.]
~book reflection~~some spoilers~
“My words are always there. They wake me up, yelling for attention, in the middle of the night. They whisper in my ear during boring classes. My words are the reason I somehow tricked this school into admitting me. But now there’s nothing. My words are gone.”
Last night, I thought to myself: “okay, like, I just need to read a chapter from one of the books I’ve been juggling.” But what started as me reading two chapters of Elise Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters before bed became me staying up until 4 AM to finish it. Once I let myself get into the groove, the book was a page-turner. Even a tear-jerker toward the end – though that may have been the result of me not getting enough sleep.
In Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, our morally grey main character is sixteen-year-old Tessa Johnson, a biracial Black girl from Roseville who loves to write romance stories. Tessa writes these stories for herself (“It was empowering to create a world in which I was the center, the prize, the one desired.”) and her best friend Caroline. The main characters in Tessa’s romance stories are basically projections in fictional worlds, where Tessa is Tallulah and Carolina is Colette.
Tessa’s life changes when her parents move from Roseville to Long Beach. To surprise her daughter, her mom secretly sends Tessa’s romance stories to an arts academy called Chrysalis. When Tessa is accepted into the writing program, that includes a workshop where she is required to share her work and get feedback, Tessa suddenly hits a persistent writing block.
This writing block, which nearly lasts the whole book, is the result of Tessa feeling general imposter syndrome, but also a fear that her preferred genre to write in, romance, is a cringy genre that is not prestigious or important enough to share with her peers. Yet instead of dealing with these feelings head-on, Tessa takes Caroline’s advice: “How can you write about love if you don’t have love? If you’ve never had a boyfriend, you know, never experienced things.”
Over multiple phone conversations, Caroline guides Tessa through a plan to catch Tessa a real-life love interest called “Tessa’s Happily Ever After,” which includes silly, but fun tropes and moves like “2. Spill something on him or fall in his general direction-CLUMSINESS IS KEY” and “Make him jealous-love triangle possibilities?”
Tessa agrees, desperate to get her writing groove back, but also to have something to scheme on with her best friend who is now hours away. Tessa fears losing Caroline - especially since soon after Tessa leaves, Caroline gets her first serious boyfriend. this contributes to Tessa feeling like she needs to catch up to Caroline.
Of the two possible boys that are on Tessa’s radar, there’s Sam, the boy next door who drives her to school and is enrolled in the new culinary program at Chrysalis but is not what Tessa imagines for herself (Tessa hates the Hawaiian shirts he won’t stop wearing).
On the other hand, there’s Nico, another writer, who eerily looks like how Tessa pictured Tallulah’s love interest Thomas in her stories: olive skin, tall, brooding, even down to the skinny black jeans.
But Nico has a girlfriend: Poppy. This is where our character, Tessa Johnson, becomes morally grey. Should she go after Nico, knowing that he is taken? But also knowing that he is everything Tessa imagined for herself?
If you know me, you know I love a good morally grey relationship. Some reviewers didn’t like that Tessa went after Nico, knowingly willing to be the “mistress” to his relationship and that almost all her friends are basically okay with it, even supportive.
This didn’t bother me. Actually, it made the book more fun. I grew up reading series like Gossip Girl and The Clique where cheating was everywhere. I don’t necessarily approve of cheating but hey, it’s added mess to a story and I love mess. Plus, it’s just relatable. Keeping it hundred, I’ve definitely heard phrases from my friends like “I’m not the one cheating because I’m single” and “He wouldn’t be where he didn’t want to be.”
Other things I loved: the natural hair representation. A lot of books are starting to have covers with Black girls with natural hair, but fewer books actually incorporate that into the storyline. Reading Tessa talk about big chopping her relaxed hair and going on YouTube to perfect her twist out really spoke to me as someone who also went natural in high school and relied on YouTube natural hair gurus.
I also really loved the way Caroline and Tessa spoke on phone, sometimes talking, sometimes FaceTiming, but always with a lot of excited yelling. It reminded me of Lizzie and Miranda on that Disney show Lizzie McGuire. And I loved that they shared and wrote their own love stories, pining over boys and imagining their life but better.
It’s so endearing when Caroline begs Tessa for more Colette love story chapters to read. Teenage girl earnestness is so relatable to who I used to be, before the world hardens you. So often, in middle and high school, reading books like Twilight that everyone called corny and writing silly stories for me and my friends was often the only reprieve for how boring everyday life was.
And no, it’s not feminist to have female characters always talking about boys. But sorry, that’s all I did in middle school and high school LOL. Pretty much the only topics were “who has a crush on who?” “who do you like? “is he cute?” It might be irritating to some the amount of pining that goes on in this book, but I found it super amusing and relatable. And I still love crush conversations which I why I love the show Sex and the City, even though everyone says it has the same problem of men always being the main topic of conversation.
There is a not-so-hidden disdain for light-hearted romance genre books that I can admit that I have internalized, especially as I spend more time in online bookish circles. It was shocking but true when Elise Bryant, during our IG Live, said that she remembered I had said on here that I didn’t like the romance genre. I ended up thinking about why. I still don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps, I feel like there’s nothing I’m learning from romance novels.
Perhaps its internalized sexism (or maybe my own misguided feminism) that makes me think, “well nothing is important about a woman lusting over a man.” I feel the pressure to always be reading something meaningful, either illuminating adult contemporary fiction or well-research non-fiction. Anything else is not to be taken seriously and definitely not to be included in any “best books of the year” lists.
In all honesty, romance will never be my favorite genre. But I think what made this book different was that it was YA (for some reason YA romance is more tolerable than Adult romance), but also Tessa’s love story was also about her becoming a better writer. Surprisingly, very few scenes in the book were outright swoony, “I love you” scenes, which made it more my style.
Some things I liked less about this book: It’s unfortunate because I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make my mom wait outside with me in front of the Borders bookstore for 12 hours so I could get the seventh book in the Harry Potter series when I was younger. I understand that Harry Potter meant so much to young and old readers.
But honestly, knowing what we know of J.K. Rowling’s persistent trans-exclusionary views, I winced every time the characters referenced the series and what house they would be in. Tessa does mention that she and Caroline are disappointed in J.K. Rowling but then Harry Potter still kept coming up. I didn’t think it was necessary to even mention Harry Potter in the first place - but those who read it, what did you think?
Tessa is really self-centered. It’s funny because her and Caroline have a huge argument about it, only for them to make up and go right back to talking about Tessa. Maybe it’s out of jealousy, but Tessa never indulges Carolina about her new relationship with Brandon.
I also wished we knew more of Lenore, the Black girl and new friend of Tessa. She’s stylish and supportive, But I’d like to see more emotional development. Especially as Lenore seems to be dark-skinned and Tessa is lighter-skinned. Bryant said she would be writing a book from Lenore’s perspective so I am excited for that.
Finally, there is disability representation in the book as Tessa’s brother Miles has cerebral palsy and other cognitive disabilities. Bryant, though not being disabled, mentioned in our IG chat that she pulled from her own experiences with her brother. Since disability is not a monolith, me having sickle-cell does not mean I can speak to whether the depiction of cerebral palsy was done correctly. I think it was generally good.
The ending of this book is perfect. Separate from the boys and the bad decisions, I think Tessa really finds herself as a person and a writer, no longer embarrassed to write romance.