TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Dash & Lily's Book of Dares" is a joint novel by Rachel Cohn and the incredibly fabulous David Levithan (you probably already know this author duo from a little something called "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"). While this book is no "Nick and Norah's" — or, my personal favorite Levithan pairing, last year's incandescent "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" — it certainly has a lot in its favor. And as far as smart teen romances filled with quirky characters and narrated in alternating chapters … well, you could do worse, believe me.
It's Christmas time in New York City, and our anti-hero Dash stumbles upon a red moleskin journal in the legendary Strand bookstore. Inside the journal, Dash finds a little Strand scavenger hunt created by someone named Lily. Intrigued, Dash adds his own clues to the journal, taking the mysterious Lily out of the Strand and into local neighborhood haunts. Lily then returns the favor, sending Dash along a trail of bread crumbs that eventually includes Santa's lap (at Macy's Herald Square!), Madame Tussaud's wax museum, and the brightly lit houses of Dyker Heights; he returns the favor with a matinee movie, FAO Schwartz's Muppet factory, and a late night Klezmer show at a downtown club. Along the way, the two exchange favorite quotations, musings, and secret confessions, and they kind of-maybe-just possibly fall in love without ever having met. But what will happen when they do meet in person, away from the safe confines of the journal? I will spoil nothing, dear reader. :-p
What works here? Dash is an interesting character. Although he is cut very squarely from the John Green mold — clever, sarcastic, introspective, music-loving, literary, too old for his years — he has some sharper edges. Dash's combative relationship with his distant father factors into several scenes and cuts against the guarded optimism he shows by engaging in Lily's dares. Indeed, it is in Dash's relationships with his friends, especially endearingly loyal best pal Boomer and wise ex-girlfriend Sofia, that we learn more about his true nature than in any of his philosophical journal entries. Lily, on the other hand, works better as a character away from her sometimes cloyingly eccentric family, where we can see her quiet confidence, hopefulness, and individuality play out in a more authentic fashion. I loved the scene were Lily, wearing her great aunt's majorette boots, dances with abandon to the Klezmer music, not caring who is looking or judging her. Lily's increasing independence from her family and her ability to grow into herself — and open this new person up to new friends — makes her romantic journey all the more believable. It also makes us want to root for her at every turn … even when she's acting like a complete knucklehead.
On a somewhat related note, I think teens will find the nearly absolute freedom of the two teens — Dash's divorced folks are away and each mistakenly think the other is watching him; Lily's parents are on an anniversary trip to Fiji while her beloved Grandpa is proposing to his lady friend in Florida — intoxicating. Both are free to flit about the city with few rules or restrictions, although Grandpa does eventually show up to sorta put his foot down. Snowy New York City, in all its holiday grandeur and grotesqueness, provides a wonderful backdrop to the burgeoning teen romance, adding a sense of wonder to what is, after all, an enchanting experience. The authors do such a beautiful job connecting the magic of the city to the magic of falling in love.
I adored the dares, so I was sorry to see those fade in the book's final third, when the characters meet, misunderstand each other, meet again in delightful fashion, move apart, come back together, try again, and so on. Some of this "keep the lovers apart until the end!" felt contrived to me, but I understand the need for tension and I kept eagerly turning the pages. I also thought the story got a bit bogged down in the weight of Dash and Lily's esoteric ideas about friendship, love, expectations, and connections. I'd rather experience what they're feeling — fears, dreams, and all — than be told about it. But it rebounded nicely with a screwball Dash and Lily second chance encounter involving a snowball fight, a wanted poster, a mammoth dog, and the NYPD. (Of course!) And, without giving anything away, the subtle, rather open-ended conclusion felt right for this offbeat, often charming love story.
If you're looking for a smart take on the traditional teen romance, "Dash & Lily's Book of Dares" is a very good choice. Although it has some flaws, the richly created main characters, as well as the humorous touches and New York City travelogue, make this one an engaging, fun, thoughtful read. There is some harsh language and some veiled sexual references here, so I'm thinking maybe 8th grade and up? Hope you like it … and happy holidays!
PS – "Dash and Lily's …" is being adapted into a film. Keep your eyes out for it sometime in late 2011 or 2012.