Book Review: Happily Ever Afters

Title: Happily Ever Afters

Author: Elise Bryant

Genres:  Contemporary, Romance

Pages: 384

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Review Copy: Purchased

Availability: Available now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Tessa Johnson has never felt like the protagonist in her own life. She’s rarely seen herself reflected in the pages of the romance novels she loves. The only place she’s a true leading lady is in her own writing—in the swoony love stories she shares only with Caroline, her best friend and #1 devoted reader.

When Tessa is accepted into the creative writing program of a prestigious art school, she’s excited to finally let her stories shine. But when she goes to her first workshop, the words are just…gone. Fortunately, Caroline has a solution: Tessa just needs to find some inspiration in a real-life love story of her own. And she’s ready with a list of romance novel-inspired steps to a happily ever after. Nico, the brooding artist who looks like he walked out of one of Tessa’s stories, is cast as the perfect Prince Charming.

But as Tessa checks each item off Caroline’s list, she gets further and further away from herself. She risks losing everything she cares about—including the surprising bond she develops with sweet Sam, who lives across the street. She’s well on her way to having her own real-life love story, but is it the one she wants, after all?

Review: Not gonna lie, I had a smile on my face all throughout reading this book. So many moments of this book that absolutely hit me in the feels and moments that I fully connected to. I also saw many of my students in Tessa as I remembered them learning to find their voices and encouraging them to write what is in their heart.

Happily Ever Afters is a great example of how crippling Imposter Syndrome can be. The novel opens with Tessa in the zone writing a scene from her story that she shares with her friend Caroline. The writing is very good for a teenager and it’s clear that that Tessa throws her heart into her art. Because we are introduced to Tessa in such a manner, it is extremely heartbreaking as writer’s block hits her because she doesn’t feel she deserves to be at Chrysalis Academy, a school devoted to the arts. She feels that because she writes romance that her writing is not “real” literature, therefore she has no business being at the school. I wonder where she got that idea from, hmmm? (That’s sarcastic in case it doesn’t come across that way. The romance genre is so undervalued in society, hence many young writers think they are not writers because the write romance which is heartbreaking and stifles many a voice that should be out in the world.) And I felt Tessa’s pain on a deep, deep level as that was me when I was a teen because I wrote and loved reading romance. This feeling of inadequacy in Tessa sends her on a downward spiral where she fakes to everyone, including herself, that she is managing her stress all the while she loses friends, her grades fall, and her relationship with her parents almost falls apart. Ultimately she hits rock bottom and confides in her support group but it is not an easy climb back, which I felt was extremely real. Like I said earlier, this book is a master class how destructive Imposter Syndrome can be on artist.

The strength of this master class is how Elise Bryant has fully captured Tessa’s voice. Tessa is a young woman who is thoughtful, at times very snarky and funny, is willing to take risks, listens (when she wants to like any teenager), while balancing feeling homesick and experiencing a new city. Tessa felt like she could be one of my students who is exploring who she is, her writing, and her place in the world. Tessa also holds incredible responsibility on her shoulders at time as her older brother has cerebral palsy, therefore sometimes she has to be the older sibling. Another aspect of this novel was the relationship between the two. Tessa doesn’t “learn anything” from him, he’s just her brother and Bryant wrote their relationship beautifully. Tessa makes sure everyone in her life understands that and has no problem voicing it when the topic does come up. I loved Tessa for so many reasons, this among them.

Lastly, as a personal note, the story takes place in my beloved city of Long Beach, CA where I recently moved from and miss it dearly. A number of the places Bryant describes are actual Long Beach institutions so I loved seeing some of my old haunts in the book. And not giving away spoilers here, but the Long Beach urban legend that Bryant refers to is an actual urban legend so that was fun, at least for me, to see that story in the book (it’s such a wild story that one must buy the book to know what I’m talking about).