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Last year, I reviewed She Gets the Girl written by Alyson Derrick and her wife, Rachael Lippincott, and really enjoyed it. So when I saw that Derrick had a new sapphic YA book coming out just in time for the April 4th episode of All the Books, I had to read it. This is an amnesia romance, but while that can sound like a soap opera premise—girl meets girl, girls fall in love, girl gets amnesia and forgets girl, girl tries to win her back—there’s an undercurrent of sadness here that keeps it feeling more grounded than that suggests.
In the first chapter, we meet Stevie. She just graduated high school and has big plans for what comes next… but almost no one in her life knows about them. She has secretly been dating Nora for years, but in their small conservative town, being out isn’t an option. Stevie’s mother is deeply involved in the Catholic church, and her father watches Fox News almost every waking hour. So Nora and Stevie see each other in private, with dates in the woods. When Stevie can’t sleep, she silently calls Nora and just listens to her voice, not wanting to wake up her parents in the next room by speaking herself.
It’s been difficult keeping this private, including having to fake a better relationship with her parents than she believes and even maintaining friendships with people she no longer gets along with, but it will be worth it. They just need to get through the summer before they’re both off to California–Stevie secretly applied to UCLA and got in—and then they can start their life together. They’ve been saving up for an apartment by saving their paychecks, plus Stevie’s job at a coffee shop two towns away is the perfect cover for the time she spends with Nora.
After all that meticulous planning, though, one moment erases everything they’ve worked for. During a date in the woods, Stevie falls. She’s put into a medically induced coma. When she wakes up, she’s forgotten the last two years. She still thinks she’s 15. And she doesn’t remember ever meeting Nora.
Stevie is left trying to piece together the time she’s lost. She’s distant with her parents, and she doesn’t know why. She can’t understand why she was alone in the woods when Nora saw her and rescued her. Any evidence of her relationship with Nora was deleted or hidden, so there’s nothing to stumble on.
Interspersed with these chapters are unsent letters from Nora, explaining her heartbreak and confusion. This version of Stevie doesn’t have any idea that she’s gay, never mind that she’s in a relationship with a girl. She’s worried that telling her will scare her off, but she also feels terrible about lying to her. Stevie thinks Nora is a new friend, someone to hang out with that doesn’t have memories of her that she doesn’t have. Both of them hope that Stevie can recover her memories by retracing familiar things, but there’s no guarantee.
There’s an interesting balance happening here between Nora and Stevie’s perfect relationship (pre-coma) and their hateful surroundings. Stevie is half Korean, and she is startled to find her best friends when she was 15 have grown up to make racist jokes. Her dad has also become obsessed with Fox News in recent years. The threat to her relationship does feel real: both Nora and Stevie’s parents are conservative, so it makes sense that they would stay in the closet until they have somewhere else to live.
There is a heartwarming romance at the heart of this, including that Stevie feels drawn to Nora even without her memories, and it’s adorable to watch her fall for Nora all over again. But the amnesia trope and almost-too-perfect relationship is tempered by the more serious context of the story, including Stevie’s internalized homophobia.
I meant to just read the first few chapters of this and found myself instead reading it in one day. Even though we know the answers, it was compelling to watch Stevie try to piece together what happened in the time she lost and consider whether she really needs to recover it or whether she should embrace the opportunity to start fresh. After all, in this missing time she apparently became more distant from her friends and family and also applied to the local community college when she’s been waiting her whole life to go somewhere new. Does she really want to be that person?
This is a very readable, engaging novel, and though I’ve mentioned that their relationship was almost too perfect, that’s helped by Nora’s characterization. She’s not on the page that much, considering this is mostly a romance, but what we do see of her is charming without being one-dimensional. You can see why Stevie falls for her (twice).