Ella is nearly invisible at the Willing School, and that’s just fine by her. Still, it’s hard being a nobody and having a crush on the biggest somebody in the school: Alex Bainbridge. Especially when he is her French tutor, and lessons have started becoming, well, certainly more interesting than French ever has been before.
Tell Me More: When it comes to contemporary YA romance, I am (often) easily pleased. There aren’t elaborate worlds that have been constructed, nor do I have to get used to strange name permutations. A good story, with vibrant and dynamic characters, is enough to make me happy. Thankfully, authors like Melissa Jensen always find ways to take that enjoyment and rack it up to the next level.
Ella is exactly the kind of awkward, nerdy sixteen-year-old that I was at her age, and her unashamed acceptance of her personality won me over immediately. She’s smart without being pretentious, and she’s passionate without being annoying. That kind of balance in characters is hard to find and even harder to write, so points to Jensen for crafting a protagonist who is simply enchanting. Sadly, the same cannot be said for love interest Alex Bainbridge. While I desperately wanted to fall in love with him, I just didn’t see enough of him to do so. Certainly, he was sweet and fun and charming, but what readers will find in his characterization isn’t enough to tip the scales into thrilling, overwhelming adoration.
I also found that the pacing of the novel was uneven, focusing on minor events and exposition and then rocketing to the cute conclusion. Melissa Jensen’s first novel, Falling in Love with English Boys, also suffered from this problem. Fine Art is rather long for a contemporary YA, and sometimes it felt as though I was missing some crucial scenes that would develop the relationship between Alex and Ella further. The evidence of those scenes was present, but readers will feel as though they took a short misstep.
That said, the plot itself was brilliant. The Fine Art of Truth or Dare may be marketed as a YA romance, but it doesn’t quite have the heart for that. Ella is the shining star of this story. It’s really about the chances she takes and the courage she learns to find in herself. Half the book is dedicated to her “love affair” with 19th century painter Edward Willing for good reason. Granted, most sixteen-year-olds aren’t obsessed with dead painters. She embarks on a project to find out more about the influence of his relationships on his art, and what she finds isn’t quite what she’s looking for. But isn’t that just like being a teenager? Of course, she makes mistakes on the road to self-discovery, and sometimes she is even (gasp!) selfish. The most wonderful thing about this story is that it isn’t tricking you into falling for a girl or pairing by telling you all the great things about them. Life is a fine art in itself, a story of lines we don’t think we can cross and the days that force us to take a risk. Ella’s story is remarkably honest and open, mirroring Willing’s life in ways she doesn’t even see. But readers will know how close Ella really is to being happy with herself and with the dares she chooses to take on. The ride might be bumpy, and that’s just the way a good game of truth or dare always goes.
That’s Not All:
- Truth–Ella and the rest of the characters live in South Philly, and if you know me, you know I grew up in Philadelphia. Reading about my hometown makes me happy in ways I can’t even describe.
- Truth–I have a fine arts degree (BFA Creative Writing), so all the art talk? Loved loved loved it! Edward Willing was one of the artists I studied in university, and I would probably love every novel that features him in one way or another.
The Final Say: I happily dare all YA readers to pick up this exhilarating and fun romance, straight out of the warmth of South Philly. Ella Marino will make you want to be her best friend forever.