After finishing Susane Colasanti’s When It Happens, something strange happened: I had an overwhelming urge to read my journals from high school. It’s no secret that I’m a diarist — I’ve written in a journal every day since my freshman year of high school, now giving me a solid ten years worth of recollections and ramblings. And reading Colasanti’s novel was just like taking a plunge back into my own high school memories — in a good way.
Those fresh, exciting feelings of first love — and of your high school sweetheart? All here. The confusion, turmoil and uncertainty about friendships, sex, family? Here too. In fact, Colasanti’s novel didn’t seem to be missing much in terms of easily placing us in the world of a suburban high school in New Jersey, and introducing us to two would-be lovers who struggle to own up to their feelings for one another — and not look foolish in the process.
Sara Tyler is a sophisticated, sassy senior known for her intelligence and dedication to getting into the best college possible. Watching her from afar is Tobey Beller, a consummate slacker student who spends his time plucking guitar strings instead of doing schoolwork. Tobey’s had his eye on Sara for a while and has decided that the start of their senior year is going to mean big changes in his world: namely, he’s going after the girl. But cue the big, dopey but smokin’ hot competition for Sara’s affection: Dave, a jock with one thing (and you know the thing!) on his mind.
When It Happens is Sara and Tobey’s sweet love story, looking at the ways in which they continually seem to miss opportunities to be together — or simply dodge them, afraid of their feelings. What I loved about the book was how realistically relationships were portrayed (complete with realistic dialogue), and the fact that Colasanti doesn’t just gloss over the difficult stuff or make the novel dissolve into a cheesetastic after-school special. Real problems and questions teens face are addressed, but they’re done so in a thoughtful way — and the novel never seemed to fall into the trappings of an author talking down to teens about why they should wait. I appreciated, too, that Colasanti recognized the importance of first love — and that it wasn’t reduced to something silly, or something to be mocked. It was obvious she believed what she was saying, so I believed it, too!
Tobey and Sara are, of course, the core characters of the novel, and I loved that we were able to watch their relationship grow — and that * SPOILER: the book didn’t just abruptly end when the guy finally gets the girl. It’s so frustrating when you’ve spent 300 pages waiting for a couple to be together if you don’t get to see them together — in fact, that’s a major pet peeve of mine — so I was relieved to watch their love story continue. *
A few gripes with the book? Characters other than Tobey and Sara were so on the periphery, I can’t even recall their names right now. They weren’t fleshed out or dimensional and seemed like mere stand-ins for “real” friends, people Colastani needed to provide comic relief or fill a role in the background — like Tobey’s best friend, a guy with terrible dating advice, for example. Sara and Tobey — and even Dave — felt authentic, and like people I could actually know, but no one else did.
And where the heck were these kids’ parents? Sara mentions that her mom had her as a teen and is, like, on boyfriend No. 76 (stereotypical, but I’ll let it slide), and Tobey’s parents don’t seem to mind that their son has a half-dressed young woman in his bedroom (um, seriously?). We never know much about them or even see them in the story; they’re always “working late” or just . . . out. That seemed a little too easy for me.
But overall? A sweet, fast read that I’m sure would be enjoyed by high school students — and their older counterparts. Just a little parental warning? Issues of intimacy do come up quite a bit in the book, though they’re always done tastefully, but if you’re squeamish about that sort of thing or would just rather the kiddos stay clear of the topic, I’d hold off on this one for a few years.
Oh! And Colasanti gets major points in my proverbial book for making not one but two references to John Mayer in When It Happens! Including a quote from one of his songs, “St. Patrick’s Day” — an underrated but fantastic tune off “Room For Squares”! Yes, friends, I’ve found an author who appreciates the genius of Mr. Mayer. If I were less of a book reviewer, I’d slap this one with a five-star rating based on that alone. (But you know I wouldn’t do that to y’all. So four stars it is.)
4 out of 5!