There’s something vaguely unsettling about reading historical fiction set in the year you were born. At the very least, it can make one feel a tad...elderly? But while Audrey Couloumbis’ Not Exactly a Love Story is set in the late ‘70s—complete with references to Saturday Night Fever, use of landline telephones and a distinct lack of caller ID—underneath the trappings of the decade, it’s a timeless story about the difficulties of connecting with other people.
Shortly after—very shortly after—his parents’ amicable divorce, 15-year-old Vincenzo “Vinnie” Gold’s mother marries his gym teacher*, and he’s forced to switch high schools and relocate from Queens to Long Island. The object of his desire recently moved away, he’s just survived a terrifying mugging and his new stepfather is actually a pretty good guy, but Vinnie isn’t all that broken up about the move. Once he’s settled into his new house, new town, and new school, Vinnie proceeds to...not make any real attempt at making friends. At all.
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Instead, he vaguely lusts after Patsy, the girl across the street. So, when he finds himself in possession of her private phone number, he uses it. But, rather than asking her out—which really is what he means to do—he propositions her in extremely basic, profane terms. She hangs up. The next night, he calls back to apologize, and from then on, they talk every night: sometimes for only a few minutes, sometimes for much longer. Vinnie finds freedom and confidence in the anonymity, and to a degree, so does Patsy: at the very least, she tells him about aspects of her life that she hasn’t shared with her friends.
But can a private, almost fantasy-based, relationship like theirs—one that began with a late-night misdemeanor—transform into something real? Something public? Do they even want it to?
It’s not a book that I’d recommend to readers who like their stories fast-paced and plot-driven, but if you’re craving a smart, quietly humorous, dialogue-heavy, character-based romance, I’d give it a go. (Though I wouldn’t recommend that anyone use Patsy’s decisions as a playbook—in a different genre of book, she’d be dead, dead, dead.)
Three books I thought of while reading Not Exactly a Love Story:
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You: Like Vinnie, James is a New Yorker, born and bred; like Vinnie, James doesn’t make human connections easily; and like Vinnie, when he decides to take the plunge and make the attempt, everything goes all to hell.
Both books—the Cameron and the Couloumbis—made me think of The Catcher in the Rye. As so many YA reviews invoke Salinger, I try to do it sparingly, but Vinnie’s self-imposed isolation reminded me again and again of Holden Caulfield. He’s not as self-consciously, self-protectively angry—James is more like Holden in that way—but it’s safe to say that he’s a direct descendant.
Most of all, though, it reminded me of Natalie Standiford’s super-special How to Say Goodbye in Robot. It’s set in Baltimore rather than New York, and the characters in Standiford’s book deal with heavy issues in addition to the difficult-enough business of becoming adults, but the late night bonding, the smart conversation and the intense desire for connection? It’s all there.
*Shades of Bill Haverchuck. You’ve seen the awesome reunion photos, right?
Let's be honest. If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is most likely being tragically unproductive due to the shiny lure of Pinterest.