“‘You’re the one person in my life who wants nothing but me and it’s terrifying and awesome at the same time. Don’t ever leave me. I love you. You’re my heart.’”
When It’s Real by Erin Watt is an adorable novel, and I’m not even a little bit ashamed by the number of stars I’m giving it. I will admit that it took me a little while to get into When It’s Real, and it wasn’t a totally addictive read right from the start, but once I did get into the meat of it, I found I couldn’t put it down. It genuinely made me smile while reading.
This feeling has everything to do with the characters and how cute and relatable I found them to be…which is saying a lot, considering the male lead is a pop star. Let’s be honest with ourselves, the plot of When It’s Real – a pop star hiring a “normal” girl to pose as his girlfriend to mend his image – is one we’ve seen countless times before. I am a fan of romance novels that have something to do with the creative arts, whether it’s tattooing (as in the case of the Sin and Needles series by Karina Halle), book publishing (as in the case of my all-time favourite, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne) or, as in this case, the music industry. But, I will say that the plot and structure of When It’s Real, with its alternating narration that allowed both the female lead, Vaughn Bennett, and the male lead, Oakley Ford, to have their say, was nothing special or out of this world. Vaughn and Oak, though, were. Particularly Oak, who comes across as sweet and kind and vulnerable right from the first chapter. I liked Vaughn a lot as the typical, seventeen-year-old “girl next door” character because her relationship with her older sister and younger twin brothers was extremely endearing and her insecurities about her future were realistic and human. Oak, however, was the real star of the novel for me because he is a surprisingly multi-faceted character, a hugely successful recording artist who secretly harbours just has much fear and insecurity as Vaughn. I appreciated that Oak wasn’t this one dimensional male lead in the sense that he wasn’t a cocky asshole who just wanted to manipulate and deflower Vaughn – he was a strong character in his own right, with a lot of heart and with a soft side that made him the perfect match for Vaughn. He not only uses his confidence to bring Vaughn out of his shell, he also sympathizes with her anxieties about relationships and getting close to someone, and so he never rushes, uses or manipulates her. This is refreshing to see in a romance novel because all too often we, as readers, are presented with these men in privileged positions (think Christian Grey, as an example) who do fall in love, no doubt, but who never fully seem to understand their female counterparts or respect their decisions, hesitancies and complexities. Unlike all these overly pushy and possessive romantic heroes, Oak takes the time to unpack why Vaughn is hesitant to get close to him, both emotionally and physically, and he gives her the time she needs to develop a sense of comfort with him and a confidence of her own. Obviously, this is classified as a young adult novel so there wasn’t too much digging into the psychologies of Vaughn and Oak (more on this in a moment), but I generally felt that Oak was a better male lead than most I’ve encountered in romance novels in the past. I also found his dialogue to be super flirty and cute, and it gave me this tingly feeling because the things he said often reminded me of things I’ve heard come out of my husband’s mouth. I really think Erin Watt nailed the male voice in this particular story for that reasons.
That all being said, my major qualm with When It’s Real was the fact that it didn’t seem to distribute its time properly, in terms of plot. The novel is about 400 pages which I think is a good length. Unfortunately, most of those pages are taken up by Vaughn being in a relationship with her high school boyfriend and her and Oak feeling antagonistic toward each other. I’m all for hate-to-love relationships, as they are some of my favourite, but I did feel that too much of the plot was spent establishing a connection between Vaughn and Oak and not delving into their relationship enough. There aren’t many steamy or sexy scenes at all, and I don’t mean to say that a YA romance novel should necessarily have a ton of these, but it just sort of felt anti-climactic to me because we are waiting for Vaughn and Oak to get together and it is supposed to be this huge moment for Vaughn (one that she’s been waiting for and thinking about for a long time), and then it’s sort of rushed and the plot moves on very quickly. The “conflict” or, I should say, misunderstanding at the end of the novel is also very rushed and seems to be there just for the sake of it. Instead of having a red herring like this, though, I would’ve preferred to get more of Vaughn and Oak together because there simply didn’t seem to be enough of that throughout the novel. There are also so many unresolved issues, such as Vaughn’s decisions for her future, and while I understand that the whole point of the novel is that Vaughn should get to find out what her passion is, in her own time, I think the story would have had a more powerful message if she was on her way to finding that passion towards the end. Instead, she still seems mostly directionless.
Overall, I would recommend When It’s Real, particularly for teenagers in grade 11 or 12. As I said, there wasn’t anything too racy or inappropriate, and I think the fun, cute and flirty romance is ideal for young adults just wrapping up high school and looking for a light beachy read. When It’s Real is seriously the perfect story to read over summer vacation!
❥❥❥.5 (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart