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YA Book Review: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan


Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan
TW: Mentions of Suicidal Thoughts, Depictions of Panic Attacks
Overview: Romeo and Juliet are a symbol of romance, even though they're totally tragic. Ridley and Jubilee are also romantic and kinda tragic, but not really, because this is real life not a Shakespeare play. They do share a chance meeting at a party, a serious family feud, and a dramatic moment right before the resolution. Jubilee's moms own Verona Comics and an indie comic line, and they're fighting for survival against evil super chain, the Geekery. The Geekery happens to be owned by Ridley's dad. But they don't know that when they have their first electric connection. Will their relationship survive secrets and family conflict, or will their divides tear them apart? Overall: 5

Characters: 5 I loved both Jubilee and Ridley, and I appreciated being able to read from both perspectives. Jubilee starts off the book with a singular focus: get into the cello conservatory program she's been dreaming about for ages. Everyone's worried that she doesn't have enough life in her life-cello balance. To be fair, her time is mostly spent working at Vera's comic shop, at school, or practicing. That all changes when Ridley comes into her life.
With Ridley, Jubilee has to rebalance her priorities. She lets friendships and her practice time fall by the wayside to hang out with him, and in the process of trying to unwind, she gets caught up in a new obsession. She struggles with not losing herself in whatever she's most passionate about, and that's her central task throughout the book. Jubilee also faces the new complication of helping Ridley manage his mental illness. While she's completely accepting and caring towards him, it's still a lot to be someone's sole support system. Because of their families' feud, Jubilee feels like she can't turn to the adults in her life to help navigate the confusing aspects of helping him or get the additional help he needs. I thought it was really interesting to show the effects of Ridley's struggles from Jubilee's prospective as well because it showcased the sometimes difficult reality and strain of having a loved one dealing with mental health issues. She never loves or thinks less of him for it, but that doesn't change its impact on her life just like Ridley's family members' struggles have impacted his own.
I also liked the spotlight that was put on Jubilee's questions about her sexuality. She chooses not to label herself because none of the existing labels feel right. She sometimes uses bi or pan, but she's happy to give herself the space to decide what, if anything, is right in the long run. I'm really happy to see the increase in non-labeled LGBTQIA representation in YA. It's important.
When Ridley meets Jubilee he's looking for an ally, a friend, or just someone to share his thoughts with. He's always been on the outside of his family circle. His dad thinks he's incompetent, his sister is the golden child, and his mom sees him as a burden. When the book starts, he's living in Seattle with his mom while his dad lives across the county in their old house. After the convention, though, he comes back with his dad and is desperate to find some kind of approval or relationship that he never had. I thought this part of the story, even though it was super heartbreaking, was really compelling. It fully showcased the impact that parents have on their children, even by their absence. The lack of understanding and support from his family is a major issue on a variety of fronts, and a lot of his questionable decisions are driven by the desire to have a family moment.
Ridley's anxiety and depression were portrayed super realistically. I kept taking pictures of phrases that perfectly matched feelings that I've experienced. I also like the way that Dugan went about voicing his anxiety on the page. It's a hard thing to do. I appreciate, also, that his mental health issues are never stigmatized or seen as something he's choosing from the way it's written about. His sister tries to be the best support system she can be, and his parents are mostly left out of it.
One issue is that Ridley has been faced with negativity when talking about his sexuality. His parents both aren't terribly accepting of his bisexuality to the point where he gets really scared to tell Jubilee about it. She's very accepting and it's a great conversation moment, but they do touch on biphobia and stigmatization in a very thoughtful way. I'm glad to see more representation and normalization of that through this book, particularly with a guy main character.
The rest of the side characters are well developed but not major parts of the story. I liked the complex parent-child relationships on both Jubilee's side and Ridley's, particularly because they create such a contrast. I enjoyed Gray, Ridley's older sister. She stood between the line of his parent's awful actions because she's a huge part of the family business and someone who really stood for what was right. It creates an interesting dissonance around her character. I also liked the glimpses of friendship with Jayla and Nikki that we got to see on Jubilee's side.

Plot:  5 I was so happy that the plot structure, while modified to best serve the book, really did follow echoes of Romeo and Juliet's arch. While I don't love Shakespeare, I have a real appriciation of all the modernizations I've seen, and this is now one of them. I feel like Dugan did a great job of deconstructing and reconstructing the toxic or questionable elements of the classic story. We get a story about deep infatuation and questionable choices, but it's contextualized and unpacked. This is one of the few all consuming relationships that has taken the time in the resolution to address the not so great aspects without diminishing the connection. A lot of teen relationships do look like Ridley and Jubilee's, so I really appreciate that it did get reflected on.
The plot is a whole rollercoaster. It has the perfect amount of loud, dramatic moments and quiet, cute moments. We get to really know Ridley and Jubilee as people and as a couple, which I think is super important. It makes the plot feel more impactful. The balance of family, relationships, and friends in the plot works well.
I also want to applaud Dugan for her ability to have out there, nonsensical choices and moments that are explainable and do ultimately make sense in the context of the character and situation. She's always careful to articulate a character's full thought process so that it goes beyond "teens are reckless" to "here's a particular instance where a lot of factors have prohibited adults logically getting involved". A lot of books don't put in that level of thought and work, so I really enjoyed seeing that. You weren't forced to suspend disbelief to enjoy the book. I also think it showed a level of respect for her teen audience that's important.

Writing: 5 The voices in this book are amazing. Ridley and Jubilee have distinct points of view that are well articulated on the page. Her style is so conversational and easy that you don't want to stop reading. I also liked that the chapters were on the shorter side. That always keeps me engaged and excited to read. The style also allows the book to cover some really serious topics while keeping the book overall feel light and fun. It's nice to see a cute romance take on a lot serious topics. It makes for a very complete feeling story.
I also wanted to applaud Dugan for how well she handled mental health topics throughout the book. I've never read a book that has so positively addressed seeking inpatient mental health treatment. While not everyone has a good experience with it, most books that address the topic have an air of stigma, disapproval, or fear around it. I liked that Ridley approached it as a truly positive step towards getting to a better place and that, while not every part was ideal, it was important. Having such an open attitude in books will hopefully make it easier to for people to seek the help they need. It was nice to see the conclusion focused on healing more than a sweeping reconciliation.
This one completely lives up to the hype, and if you love contemporary YA, this should be on your must read list.

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