Title: Unconventional (2017)
Author: Maggie Harcourt
Read: 13th – 14th May 2018
Genre: young-adult; contemporary
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“Lexi Angelo is a Convention Kid – she’s got a clipboard and a walkie talkie to prove it. Aidan Green is a messy-haired, annoyingly arrogant author and he’s disrupting her perfect planning. In a flurry of awkward encounters, lost schedules and late-night conversations, Lexi discovers that some things can’t be planned… Things like falling in love.”
(Synopsis from the publisher)
Unconventional is a book that has a pretty big claim on its cover – the UK’s answer to Rainbow Rowell – but, having read the story within, I can safely say its marketing is true. I am a big fan of said author’s book Fangirl but, for all that book’s title (and my enjoyment), it always felt a little lacking to me on the actual nitty-gritty of being a fangirl – it mentions main character Cath writing fanfiction but that’s about it, we don’t get any indication of other fan events. The same criticism cannot be levelled at Unconventional which focuses on the behind-the-scenes ops room of fan conventions through the character of Lexi, whose father is a famous and successful convention organiser, and has dragged Lexi into the fray of the hectic organising business almost by default. Luckily, it seems, Lexi thrives on the nitty gritty of the daily life of a convention and running what feels like every aspect of it with the help of her trusty clipboard.
“Clipboard up, smile on and Effie Trinket the shit out of it.”
Lexi is an incredibly easy to relate to protagonist and the use of first person narrator really helps to grant readers proper “behind the scenes” access to not only the convention but also Lexi herself. She’s college-aged so I presume 17/18 and some of the thought processes felt incredibly true-to-life as she worries about both the everyday troubles of a college-aged kid like falling behind on her English coursework as well as the less everyday troubles like losing the entire writing team of Doctor Who mid-convention when they venture down to the pub for lunch. Similarly, the cast of supporting characters all felt very real – convention brats like Lexi herself form her immediate friends network in the form of Sam, Nadiya, and Bede, the latter of whom I adored and found myself snorting with laughter at all his antics. All their voices felt unique and didn’t blend into one another and, even more pleasingly, they actually talked like their ages – they weren’t off discussing existential matters every other page but, equally, their dialogue wasn’t “dumbed down” or overly dramatic just because that’s what adults think (/misremember) being a young-adult is like.
” ‘No wonder they made you High Priestess of the Order of the Clipboard.’
‘I beg your pardon…?’
‘See? You’re doing it again. Apologizing to me.’
A dozen withering comebacks whizz through my mind – and I’m too slow to use any of them.”
Then we come to the inevitable love interest, meet Aidan aka Haydn (because of course the name chosen as his pseudonym rhymes). I was all ready to be extremely skeptical of Aidan but begrudgingly find myself falling for him and of course (of course) this happened instantly. Pleasingly, he’s not without his flaws, and neither Lexi nor the author let these flaws slide just because this is a YA contemporary and we all know where it’s going to go. I will say some of the more frustrating bits of this book (and the reason it’s not quite 5-stars for me) is because I hate when the trope of ‘lack of communication’ is used as the basis for a plot but then neatly resolved in the dying breaths of the story because the character finally feels able to just use their damn words and speak up about what was making them uncomfortable. As an awkward teenager (and awkward twentysomething to be honest), I get it, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating in a novel. Still, I found Lexi and Aidan to be an adorable and compelling couple and I was most certainly rooting for them throughout, even from the very first not-so-charming “meet-cute” in the convention green room.
“I am veritably breathless with anticipation.”
Because we see the book through Lexi’s point of view we are confined to the “mundane” of the convention – for example, we don’t get to jet off to America or Italy with Haydn whilst he’s meeting with big studio execs or discussing the film adaptation of his book. In some ways, I was initially disappointed about this, but in other ways I completely understood the entire point of the book was to illustrate Lexi’s experience interacting with Aidan (the person) and Haydn (the author) and how this could feel like two different people due to the necessity of him building up a public persona as a burgeoning writer who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight thanks to the attention his debut book receives. It’s a disparity Lexi must inevitably experience regularly on the convention circuit and structuring the narrative through her eyes also helped me, as a reader, to feel similarly and simultaneously both insider and outsider as the private and the public became intertwined. I thought it was handled in an incredibly, subtly clever way, and I appreciated that deeply about Unconventional.
“I know. He’s right. That’s why it hurts. Because after all this, he does know me – and this is the time he picks to prove it.”
All in all, it’s incredibly refreshing to have a UK YA that actually goes to various cities in the UK (shout out to York!) rather than just confining itself to London and, at a push, maybe Edinburgh. It felt refreshing too to sit back and enjoy a UK-based YA contemporary complete with appropriate and genuine cultural references rather than anything that felt too forced or like gratuitous referencing for the sake of being so very “British”. Likewise, Unconventional felt like it “filled” some of the gaps in my reading experience of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – it allowed me a peek “behind the curtain” of a fan convention and also encapsulated what it means to be a true fan of something so much so that you want to pour your heart and soul into gathering other fans of the thing into one room to celebrate that shared passion. Also, I’m going to need Aidan/Haydn’s novel Piecekeepers to be a thing because I desperately want to read it and then inevitably become a fully fledged fan of it right along with Lexi.
“Funny things, words. Big words, small words; words that are bigger on the inside and packed tight with feeling. They can make us fall in love, and they can break our hearts and we’re powerless against them.”