INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING
By Nicola Yoon
Romance stories often hinge on the happily ever after. Readers of the genre push through miscommunications and high jinks to get to that final kiss or “I do.” Even romantics in real life can sometimes tell themselves the obstacles are worth it for that fabled dream. But what if you knew, simply by looking at a couple, that their happily wouldn’t be ever after?
In Nicola Yoon’s latest young adult novel, “Instructions for Dancing,” her teenage protagonist, Evie Thomas, is stricken with that exact ability: If she sees any couple kiss, she has a vision of that relationship’s past, present and inescapable future. And as Evie notes, “That’s the thing all the relationships have in common. They all end.”
A high school senior, Evie had her world and worldview shattered when her parents’ seemingly perfect marriage ended, partly because of her father’s love for another woman. Now the once hopeless romantic is simply hopeless. After a slightly shoe-horned encounter with a mysterious stranger, Evie’s new belief that love always ends in heartbreak is vindicated with every couple she sees. Luckily, that mysterious stranger left her a book — also titled “Instructions for Dancing” — that leads Evie to a struggling dance studio and to X (short for Xavier), the cute musician grandson of the studio owners. When she shows potential in her first dance class, the studio’s only instructor asks Evie if she’d learn to dance in an effort to win a local amateur dance competition. The studio would get a marketing boost, and Evie agrees in the hope that this will somehow help her get rid of her newfound visions.
For fans of Y.A. romance, Yoon’s work is well known and well loved. Her previous two novels, “The Sun Is Also a Star” and “Everything, Everything,” were both New York Times best sellers and were both adapted into movies. She has a deep understanding of the romance genre, which she passed on to her latest leading lady, Evie. But she’s also given her heroine, and this novel, a self-awareness amid the romantics. Evie highlights the clichés she stumbles into (“I should know better than to banter. Why? Because in every romance book ever written, banter is a gateway drug”); she attempts to sidestep the chemistry pulling her toward a love story she fears can only end in tragedy.
While the opening plot is a bit overly complicated and the dance-as-romance metaphors are somewhat trite (“We’ve been dancing this dance for a while now”), the chemistry between Evie and her new dance partner, X, makes the story engrossing. Where Evie’s upheavals have left her cautious, X’s own recent losses have made him want to live in the moment. It’s not a surprise that their scenes make the book come alive: Yoon is a master at writing teenage banter. Over the course of her previous books, she’s honed the ability to create a romance of opposing philosophies. In this case, it’s Evie’s logic and cynicism versus X’s emotion and hope.
The real power of the story is that Yoon’s exploration of love isn’t confined to romance, and deals with platonic and familial love as well. Evie’s friendships are fracturing in the lead-up to graduation, and her worshipful view of her parents has evolved to see them as complicated people. These are common upheavals in life, the complex relationships we have with our loved ones as we all grow and change and see each other differently. And Yoon digs into that messiness, having Evie question whether those complications are worth it for her. Prophetic visions aside, that’s a refreshing realism to find in a romance novel.
I won’t say what decision Evie comes to, though the book itself might agree that her journey is much more important than any conclusions. Evie’s, and Yoon’s, musings on life and love will be appreciated by Y.A. readers of all ages.