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Romcoms are the real cinema classics: Reviewing From Twinkle With Love

There’s a special place in my heart for all the Mia Thermoplis-s and Georgia Nicholsons of the world. All hail women like Meg Cabot and Louise Rennison (rest in peace), Rae Earl, Sue Townsend (rest in peace) and Grace Dent; women who wrote and are still writing Young Adult novels about girls who narrate their lives through diary form in order to make sense of it.

The diary form is particularly effective. By confiding and gushing and despairing and everything in between to their diary, and effectively, the reader, a seismic bond is created. Not to be corny, but those characters, more than most others, genuinely feel like real people, the significant events in their lives, their struggles, their relationships and friendships, mapping your own (or my own). I would argue that it is the form that most realistically portrays the interior life of a teenager, even if the external events are a bit more outlandish. Particularly the interior life of a teenage girl, which is often dismissed as frivolous, or just completely omitted from pop culture we’re supposed to take seriously. (Read – the boring stuff)!

So when I picked up From Twinkle With Love, I was surprised, then delighted, by its form. Twinkle follows Twinkle Mehra, a 16 year old aspiring filmmaker, who has a massive crush on golden boy, Neil Roy. When fellow film geek Sahil Roy, Neil’s twin brother, approaches her to make a film together, it feels like serendipity – she can get closer to Neil and fulfil a lifelong dream. And she starts receiving secret admirer emails from ‘N,’ and Twinkle is sure Neil is behind them. Problem is, she may be falling for his brother…

Twinkle is Sandhya Menon’s second novel. I read her first, When Dimple Met Rishi when it came out and I enjoyed it, although I found Dimple a little judgemental. Menon made it clear that, like a lot of judgement, it came from insecurity, and having her voice, loves and view of the world ignored or laughed at. In Twinkle, Menon does a great job of making Twinkle vulnerable, of holding a light to her insecurities, even though in many instances I found her a very put together person. So when she starts making questionable decisions, you can see why, even if you want to sit her down, help her do her make up and tell her to believe in her talent, and chill the fuck out.

A lot of that is to do with Twinkle’s feeling of displacement. One of the most poignant storylines in the book was the gradual revelation that Twinkle’s mother suffers from depression, and how it has fractured their relationship. And, even more sad was Twinkle’s acceptance of it. It’s an emotional shrug to her – something in her life she has learned to live with, which is so of the teen age, but you sense that it’s a thread she and her family are careful not to pull. She is also going through the unique pain of a best friend that has left you for another, cooler group of friends, and the fierceness of the insecurity, pain and questioning of self that stems from this, especially when you’re young. When the friendship is present some days, dead the other days, which it is in Twinkle, it makes for an even more frantic rollercoaster. And although the cast of Twinkle is racially diverse, and Twinkle loves her culture, and it’s portrayed so tenderly by Menon, the feeling of otherness is always present. Defiance, defensiveness, judgement, vulnerability, accountability and swoonworthy moments are all present in Twinkle’s narrative.

And that’s largely because of the form – Twinkle is told in letters to our main character’s favourite female directors, of the past and present. Twinkle wants to emulate their styles and their specific ways of working, admiring how they look at the world and report back through film. It is through this that she takes stock of her own strengths, finding and strengthening her own voice. I also liked that she talked about contemporary directors. Generally in YA books our characters love old things – be it books or movies or music, and while that isn’t unusual, it’s nice to see Twinkle write to Ava Duvernay, because of course she would!

One thing I really liked about Twinkle is how it dealt with class anxiety. There’s an episode of Riverdale in Season 2 where Toni Topaz calls out a trainwreck Jughead, and tells him that his enthusiasm for the Southside Serpents is as much about the chip on his shoulder, and his anger about being born into the wrong side of the tracks, than it is about Riverdale’s Make America Great Again tribalistic and corrupt class system. There is also a moment in the film Crazy Rich Asians where Astrid, played by Gemma Chan, tells her philandering husband Michael (played by Pierre Png and his abs and his beautiful face) that his insecurity about her family money has lead her to turn down jobs and charity work to make him feel better about himself, and even after all that, he still cheated on her, leading Astrid to conclude that the problem was not the money, but him, and she couldn’t lay herself over hot coals to make him feel like a man. (This was not taken from the script). There’s also (last one I promise) Andie in Pretty in Pink, played by Molly Ringwald, telling Duckie that hating rich people for being rich is as bad as their looking down on them for being poor. All of this to say, then, that contemporary stories about class, particularly ones surrounding teens, often have a story climax where the protagonist or whoever is experiencing from the class anxiety – in this case, Twinkle – must have a reckoning, a moment, where they realise that the insecurity resulting from this specific anxiety has led them to do some shitty things. The best stories about class, in my not very humble opinion, can distinguish between personal wrongdoing and wider, systemic injustices, and still hold the perpetrators and beneficiaries of those injustices accountable. I’m not joking when I say that this is central to my enjoyment of stories like this. Twinkle does some silly and cruel things, and makes some bad decisions, but she holds herself accountable and learns from her mistakes, but, you know, the world is still the world.

From Twinkle With Love does this pretty well, I think. Twinkle is talented, and passionate about film, no doubt, but she is also the only person in her class to not have a phone. I’m not a huge film buff anymore, but when I was, I remember a lot of talk about the levelled playing field in the film industry because of things like YouTube and smartphone cameras. Whilst this is true, there are still huge barriers to entry for aspiring filmmakers. Smartphones are expensive, and production levels need to be high, volumous and savvy to make a dent in YouTube. The book shows this and more - like how she gets her dad or a friend or a generous and lovestruck Sahil to drive when she needs to be driven. She feels icky about Sahil paying for everything they need on their film project, even though she wouldn’t have the opportunity without his financial input. I read the book a good few weeks ago now, so I can’t remember everything, but I do remember that there were so many little touches that spoke to Twinkle’s experience of being an Indian girl in a lower income family, going to school with the kids of millionaires.

I found the romance with Sahil genuinely sweet. He is supportive and generous, but flawed and insecure in ways that are specific to him and universal to teenage boys. It was also a cool narrative device to make us aware that he had a crush on Twinkle before Twinkle knew, because it added to the romcom cheer of ‘just kiss already!’ He's perfect, but not Perfect. He doesn't feel like he comes from a generic cute boy generator, but a great character in of himself. I was struck by how compatible him and Twinkle are, how great a match they are. It was a genuine pleasure to read Twinkle's realisation, and watching her (or reading her) turn the dial turn from friendship to relationship. I also really liked Sahil’s squad - we love emotionally intelligent supportive boys!

Overall, I really enjoyed it and it should go on all the ‘Here’s What You Should Read If You Loved To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ lists that have populated the internet in past weeks. I also think this is perfect adaptation material.

Further Reading: Sarah Sherwood, who writes a brilliant bookish newsletter, wrote a lovely piece on the diary writing princess of my heart, Mia Thermopolis, the only royal I will ever stan. It made Meg Cabot cry and it made my heart grow to 5x its size. Read it here.