Joy’s a new girl in town, but not totally new. She’s been in the small town of Haven, Utah, for a year now, but this year’s different since Zan, the boy of her dreams and first guy who noticed and cared for her in this town, is now out of the picture. He’s left Haven for a college near Joy’s original home town in California. He’s also left no contact information, no way for them to stay in touch. It’s like he’s disappeared off the map all together, and he never even gave Joy a proper goodbye — nor did he properly end whatever relationship they had.
Now that he’s gone, though, Joy can’t move on. She needs closure, and she’ll get it thanks to the help of Noah, Zan’s ex-best friend and the guy who Joy wants to ignore. But she realizes he could be the key to her closure, and with him, they travel to Zan’s new college and seek him out.
Back When You Were Easier to Love was a book I went into with high expectations, but I left feeling a bit left down. The book is exceptionally fast paced, as chapters are only a page or two long; as a result of this, though, the characters are a little underdeveloped for the complicated and lengthy-feeling plot line. While the pacing and set up certainly mirror Joy’s own journey, the structure wasn’t strong enough for me to forgive the weaker aspects of the story.
As a reader, I wanted to care for Joy: she’s in a really tough spot, being a new girl in a small town. But the thing is, she’s not really a new girl. She’s a new girl only in the sense that the guy she clung to when she was new has left her for college. Rather than use this as an opportunity to slide back into life as she should have a year ago, she instead chooses to fixate on Zan. As a reader, I was annoyed because Joy had no interests outside Zan, both when he was a part of her life and after he leaves her. During the course of the story, we see hints of what her interests are, but so much is focused on her obsession with this boy that she quickly becomes an irritating character. I didn’t quite care about her finding her closure because it seems like something she should have done during the summer between the end of her first year at Haven and the start of the second. Instead, there’s a bit of a gulf in time.
I will admit that this fixation/obsession is well done. Joy blows off everything she has in her life for this guy, including Noah, Zan’s former best friend. Noah was probably my favorite character in the story, as he’s clearly moved on from being ditched by his best friend, and even though he’s moved on, he’s willing to put up with — maybe even encourage — Joy’s obsession because he wants to be a good friend to her. She ignores him and treats him like dirt, yet he still comes back loyally to her. I liked this about his character, but I also wrestled with it because I wanted him to find someone new who’d actually care about him. As much as he wasn’t outwardly struggling with the loss of Zan, it was clear he was internally wrestling with losing a huge part of his social life; the thing is, he was unable to express it because no one would bring it out of him. Joy was far too self-centered to step back and consider what Zan’s departure meant to his best friend.
Zan was never developed as a character to me, and as a result, I found the obsession Joy has frustrating. She describes him as brilliant and gorgeous, but we get little else. It’s clear she’s idealizing him (as seen when she finally gets her closure later in the story), but because I have to believe her for a long time before “meeting” him, I wanted a little more reason to believe in him. I didn’t; perhaps that was because as an adult, I’m under the belief any person who just disappears and doesn’t leave contact information prefers not to be reached. And maybe that person is just a jerk who needs to be forgotten about, too.
What I did enjoy about this book, though, came after Joy finally gets her closure. As a reader, it was what I wanted to happen to her — as painful as it was — and it was through this and this alone that she finally figures out who Noah is and why he’s important. More than that, though, Joy realizes that there’s much more for her to have in Haven, even when she was earlier convinced it was a worthless place to be. Even though the Vegas scenes were strange to me, I let them slide under the belief they’d make Joy a stronger person, and they did. For me, these scenes read a little bit like some of the scenes between Amy and Roger in Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour, meaning they were a little uncomfortable/too much like a honeymoon scene (that is, much older than a teen’s perspective). That said, though, I think most readers who enjoyed Matson’s book will eat this one up because it’s of the same premise of dealing with grief and love through a road trip.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot tackled over the course of this fast book, and one of them is faith. This is a Mormon-friendly read, although I felt this aspect of the story really got buried beneath Joy’s obsession with Zan. It’s not until about 3/4 of the way through the book do we see Joy talk more candidly about her spiritual beliefs; this made me sad because I thought had this aspect been amped up sooner in the story, I would have found Joy such a fuller character. Instead, this got a little buried, and part of me wonders if it was the case that had it been a bigger aspect of the story, this book would become too easily labeled as religious ya fiction (a label that carried a certain weight when you use it).
Back When You Were Easier to Love will appeal to those looking for a light-hearted and extremely clean book. Even though I had issues with character development and plausibility within the story, the right readers will overlook this. For them, it’ll be a story of reconciling lost love and moving on into a new relationship. There’s nothing blush-worthy in here, so you don’t have to worry about a heavy or sexual relationship among the characters. It’s definitely a book with greater appeal for female readers, and I’d be comfortable handing it to middle or high school readers.
Review copy picked up at ALA. Smith’s novel will be published by Penguin/Dutton April 28.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).