Books, Critique, Diversity

In Real Life: Online Friendships and Our True Selves

In Real LifeIn Real Life by Jessica Love. St. Martin's Press. Raincoast Books. March 1, 2016.

Jessica Love
St. Martin’s Griffin/Raincoast Books
March 1st, 2016
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

You know when you read a book and you don’t expect it to inject you with so much emotion that it catches you off guard? That moment of being unable to contain the feelings you’re experiencing to yourself — especially since no one is reading it with you so they won’t understand right then —  and you want to either melt to the floor (the romance!), cry into your tea (the trauma!) or pound your fist on the table in anger (the injustice!). Books, man.

In Real Life by Jessica Love is a young adult novel about Hannah Cho and Nick Cooper, who’ve been best long distance pals for years but have never met IRL (In Real Life). They’ve developed a friendship over the phone and online which is all due to Hannah’s older sister, Grace, meeting Nick’s older brother, Alex, at a live show. So it’s spring break in their senior year and Hannah decides — after missing out on the DC trip thanks to Aditi Singh — to stop being the rule follower she’s been her whole life. She road trips from Southern California to Las Vegas, Neveda to finally meet Nick and she brings Grace and her best friend, Lo, along for the ride. The trip is kept a secret from Nick — because why not surprise your long distance friend with an in-person meet? — and Hannah is crushed that her best friend (the subject of the newly realized more-than-just-friends feelings) has a girlfriend that he didn’t mention!

It’s all very exhilarating as you plow through the 240 pages, wondering “will they end up together?” and I’m a sucker for the friends-turned-romantic-loves trope when it’s done well and Love does it well. Save for a handful of lines, within the first few chapters, this was an excellent read and it left me in a pool of my own undoing.

What I loved about the book was that the trip gave Hannah a look at the disconnect between who we are IRL and the selves we present online (or even over the phone). Online offers a chance to show parts of ourselves we’re sometimes too afraid to expose, while also hiding the parts we don’t want seen and real life sometimes means being unable to hide away the unwanted elements of who you are. All of these different aspects are part of us and according to Erving Goffman, the author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we’re constantly putting on a performance for other people — versions of who we are — until we retreat to our private space where we can be our true selves again. Now Goffman may not have thought about the role of social media in his theory but as long as there is an audience (even of one), we’re putting out a particular version of ourselves above all others and that’s what Hannah learns about Nick but also about herself.

I connected with this book on the premise of building friendships with people online and then meeting them in real life which requires rectifying that online identity with the flesh and blood human in front of me. The book sold me on that and built a great love/friendship story on top of it which I appreciated. Throw in Hannah, Grace and Lo being women of colour, and you’ve got me hooked. Hopefully, those problematic lines are addressed in the finished copy of the book with regards to Hannah’s Korean identity (a joke that just didn’t hit right when they were buying fake IDs for example) or a line that could be read as transphobic (Hannah commenting on a fake ID as looking “like a man”) but these handful of lines occurred within the first 50 pages and don’t weigh down the reading experience. I’m not saying that these problems should be dismissed but I see them as fixable in the finished copy or in additional editions. If these issues end up being a deal breaker for readers, it’s totally understandable.

Overall, I loved it. I geeked out over it. I got my friends to read it so we could fangirl together and that’s what we want in the end in our books, right?