Genre: Contemporary YA, British
It's the mid-1990s, and fifteen year-old Guernsey schoolgirls, Renée and Flo, are not really meant to be friends. Thoughtful, introspective and studious Flo couldn't be more different to ambitious, extroverted and sexually curious Renée. But Renée and Flo are united by loneliness and their dysfunctional families, and an intense bond is formed. Although there are obstacles to their friendship (namely Flo's jealous ex-best friend and Renée's growing infatuation with Flo's brother), fifteen is an age where anything can happen, where life stretches out before you, and when every betrayal feels like the end of the world. For Renée and Flo it is the time of their lives.
The tagline for Paper Aeroplanes is 'The story of a friendship': never has a tagline been so on the nose! At its heart this is simply a book about what it means to be a girl at 15 and how much of that experience is pinned on to your friendships and relationships. Alternating between the POV of Renée and Flo, the perspectives change but they always ring true. The book is set in 1994/5 so it pre-dates my teenage experience by about 10 years but there were so many times when I found myself nodding (and cringing) with a sense of 'been there, done that'! I loved both of the girls and was just so happy to be reading something that was so focussed on female characters, their lives and their relationships - this book passes the Bechdel test several times over! Dawn O'Porter really succeeds in portraying teenage friendships as being supportive and loving but also really complicated and fraught with social politics and emotion.
This book is at its best when it's simply letting the girls be and when we're just watching them muddle through the everyday trials of adolescence. The book deals with a lot of 'issues' but the scenes that resonated with me the most were the really simple ones such as Renée describing her favourite dinner and the awkwardness of borrowing things from friends and Flo's struggle to tear herself away from a toxic friendship. I will say that the book got a little carried away with melodrama involving secondary characters in the last quarter which I could have done without - I would rather have just spent the time with Renée and Flo!
This is the third book published by Hot Key Books that I've read this year (I'm proof that promotion via Twitter and blogs works!) and it's great to see British YA flourishing. Of those three novels this is by far the most British in style and tone, you can tell that it's literary heritage is Adrian Mole and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging as opposed to Judy Blume and Sarah Dessen! It deals with things such as periods, sex and complex family relationships with humour but also with brutal frankness. In particular I really loved how it dealt with sex, addressing it openly with no sense of hysteria or judgement. The book's frank tone meant that not only were characters allowed to have sex but that references were made to oral sex and condoms in a way that felt really natural. The style might not appeal to readers more familiar with the more glossy contemporary YA but I found this perspective really refreshing.
Overall, I really enjoyed Paper Aeroplanes for its honesty and heart and its refusal to smooth-out or ignore the unglamorous awkwardness of being a teenager. It's an excellent debut novel which I highly recommend.