You guessed it: this is one of those times. Scratch that, actually – there were some very specific parts about Behind the Scenes that I really, really liked.
I can’t help it – I’m a magic junkie. This means that despite my best intentions, I end up reading a lot less contemporary fiction than most other readers. That’s actually really weird because whenever I do stop and delve into contemporary books, I end up enjoying a lot of them. You’d think that I would’ve learned my lesson by now. And I’ve certainly never read any contemporary books with a Hollywood plotline, because I’ve always been convinced that I would hate them. (Apparently that’s also a complete lie. Stop being a book snob, Christina.)
But I couldn’t stop myself from getting excited about Dahlia Adler’s debut Behind the Scenes as soon as I heard about it on Twitter. I’d been wanting to try a book published by Spencer Hill Press for some time, and everyone ever seemed to bear nothing but good feelings towards this particular Spencer Hill title. And you know what? I wanted something lighthearted and fun, something I could read with minimal stress.
That’s not exactly what Behind the Scenes delivered – thorny character conflicts always get me way more stressed out than they’re supposed to, even minor things – but all in all, I think it gave me something even better.
First, Ally as a narrator and overall person is great to the highest power. She has just the right balance of relatable, snappy, imperfect, and just plain awesome. It was really easy and natural to care about her struggles because she was so likable and yet not flawless – I always find that I lose interest when a protagonist has no flaws. And surprise, surprise! She was actually intelligent. Yes, it’s finally possible to have a high GPA, be heading for an Ivy League school, and still know how to have fun, okay? Despite the fact that Ally often curses her own awkwardness (who doesn’t?) and thinks things like “honestly, am I smart enough to go to Columbia in this state?” when she messes things up, it’s not that hard to tell she’s got a brain that she puts to good use.
Also, I LOVED Van. What I didn’t get from the synopsis was that her last name, “Park”, actually means she is Korean and a flipping actress.
I cannot express how much I love Dahlia Adler for this. Really.
(Being Korean, of course, I’m personally invested in Van’s identity, but this is also the HUGEST VICTORY OF HUGE for contemporary YA. Trust me on this.)
Van was every bit as flamboyant, fun-loving, and confident as you’d expect an up-and-coming actress to be (not that I’ve ever met any, haha), with – whoa! – a functioning heart and a genuine, believable love for the limelight. She’s complicated, a little intimidating at times, and great at controlling situations. She is someone I would want as a friend, and so I cared about her a lot. I cared about the way she cared about everyone else. There’s no way around it. I loved reading Vanessa Park and her audacious approach to life. And no, I’m not going to shut up about the fact that she’s Korean. Ever. In basically any other book, Ally and Van’s roles would be switched – studious Asian girl helps her Caucasian actress friend to get out of a sticky financial situation. But this reversal is pretty much the best. And what’s even better? It makes more sense in this context.
Side note: I really liked how the issue of racism in Hollywood was handled – not in an in-your-face, moral-of-the-story way, but more of a remember-this way. The story wouldn’t have seemed quite accurate without it. It stuck with me but wasn’t big enough to be irritating, because as important as this issue is, it’s not what the story’s about.
Then there was Ally and Van’s awesome friendship. These girls were there for each other at each other’s lowest moments, which obviously made me as a reader very happy. But it made me as a writer happy, too, since struggling-but-natural friendships are really delicate in books. I wanted to high-five the author (this is always a good sign) for the nuances and triumphs in Ally and Van’s interactions.
I didn’t like the romance as much – it felt a little contrived at first, and Liam seemed somewhat “too good to be true”. It also advanced more quickly than I would’ve liked, which immediately raised a small red flag in my head. But Behind the Scenes thoroughly compensated for this quick change to an involved relationship through its realistic portrayal of Ally and Liam’s ups and downs. Something that bothers me in many books is a perfect romantic relationship throughout all of the characters’ hardships, and this really isn’t a good expectation for how real-life relationships will go. When Liam and Ally weren’t afraid to argue or stop each other or tell each other how bad a particular idea was, it bolstered my confidence in them, both as individual characters and as a couple. Their survival in the face of these emotional bumps was heartwarming and hopeful. I only got on board this ship towards the middle of the book, but I don’t regret it in the least.
All things considered, the characters were all well-rounded and believably flawed. I liked the fact that Ally had an actual, concrete family that supported her even when the going got tough. This is what most families in this setting would do, believe it or not. And despite the fact that Ally’s father has cancer (not a spoiler, don’t worry) – this is explored carefully and considerately. I really liked how Nate added to the story (supporting character, can’t say more without spoiling) and I liked the place where all the character dynamics ended up. The threads stretching between all these characters – the way they knot and smooth themselves out and move with the times – were hugely satisfying to read.
The writing style isn’t hugely out there or special, but it’s funny and vivacious – plus, it reads really fast, and it ensures that the book doesn’t leave your mind straightaway. I sprinted straight through the entire book in a day, dipping into it whenever I could get a spare few minutes and trying to hide my laughter at the particularly hilarious bits. (I was reading on my phone, and I couldn’t exactly be seen cracking up at my screen. My parents think I’m unstable whenever I crack up at a computer or phone.) And the good thing about this style is that it allows the story to show through seamlessly and truthfully. No embellishments or veils here.
“Truthfully” – that’s probably the best descriptor for how this book works as a whole.