Valentine’s 90stalgia: an ode to trashy teen romances

Happy Valentine’s Day, Bookwyrms!

Back in the summer, I had a fun idea for this year’s V-Day post: I would re-read three books from a trashy teen romance series I was briefly obsessed with in middle school. I don’t remember exactly which book catalog introduced me to Love Stories, but 12-year-old Nerija was hooked by the promise of mass-market teen rom-com shenanigans. What better way to supplement my Sweet Valley diet and impress my more pop-cultured classmates?

Since I was dependent on my parents for book money, I only managed to acquire three of the 51 titles at the time. Re-reading them now…I understand my parents’ insistence that three was plenty. They’re not bad — at least not in an un-fun way.* The Valentine’s Special itself is absolutely delightful! But I don’t feel the same nostalgic temptation to ThriftBook the whole series as I do with other 90s favorites.

* EXCEPTION: I did ThriftBook one new-to-me title (My So-Called Boyfriend) in addition to the three re-reads, and I should warn you that, as far as I could tell from the two chapters I was able to force myself through (and from a major side character in It Had To Be You), this series had a huge learning curve re: its portrayal of non-white characters (assuming, of course, it did learn). Cringe-tastic stereotypes like WOAH. Also, MSCB was just poorly written overall (cringe-tastic telling vs. showing like SUPER WOAH).

Anyhoo! Enough preambling. Let’s dive in!

NeriSiren’s 90s Romance Playlist:

  • The Jennifer Love Hewitt album by Jennifer Love Hewitt
  • The Behind the Eyes album by Amy Grant.

I played these two cassettes to shreds in the late 90s. The first one had that quintessential Dawson’s Creek vibe that made me feel hella ready for high school angst.

The second had a more grown-up, wholesome-without-being-preachy feel that took me into a more 7th Heaven world of adult romance (again, minus the preachiness). Not all the songs have a twoo wuv theme, but I still considered this a go-to soundtrack for my paperback binge-reading sessions.

For more romantic reading inspiration (not limited to the 90s), see my Love Stories playlist on Spotify.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for all three books.

Cover of My First Love, by Callie West.  A girl with chin-length dark blond hair rests her head on one hand while staring contemplatively into the camera.  

She takes up most of the cover, but to her right is a sliver of white space with black text, some of which hides behind her head so the visible text doesn't end up making much sense.  

A few words, like "love," Chris," and "Sweet" are in red.

Callie West. My First Love. New York: Bantam, 1995.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 midnight rooftop “study sessions”

In classic rom-com fashion, Amy Wyse doesn’t have time for dating; she’s too busy trying to get the best grades and the most swimming trophies so she can get a scholarship for college. She’s raised by a single mother who has drilled it into her that teen romance is a dangerous distraction.

So, of COURSE this is when Amy’s secret crush Chris starts to openly reciprocate her feelings. And of COURSE Amy drops everything to spend every minute with him (joking aside, it’s very understandable that she’d snap after years of over-working herself and repressing the other facets of her life).

But after a few whirlwind weeks of all-Chris-all-the-time, Amy realizes he’s putting just as much pressure on her as her mother — pressure to go all Holden Caulfield on her ambitions (he literally keeps a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his backpack) and just breeze through life like he does.

Except, as Amy finally snaps at him, he has more of a luxury to slide through his classes than she does, since his parents are wealthy enough to get him into any college he wants regardless of his GPA.

She realizes he’s so caught up in his physical attraction to her that he completely dismisses the other things she cares about, ignoring her every time she says she wants to get back to her studies (yeah, this bit’s pretty cringe — Chris doesn’t cross any physical boundaries, per se, but he does things like impulsively turn in the opposite direction while driving her home and insist that she deep-down does want to blow off homework for sunset-gazing and pop-up carnivals because doesn’t everyone, really?)

I would’ve liked the story to end with Amy telling Chris to back off the romance for a while and get to know her as a friend, but at least she sets some clear boundaries for their relationship going forward, and stands up for her academic dreams. It’s a nice balance between easing off the academic pressure while still honoring her genuine goals.

And, on that note, even though I empathize with the mother’s need to keep Amy from making The Same Mistakes She Did, it was very satisfying to see Amy break down and assert that she can’t be the one to make up for her mother’s personal regrets.

Fun stuff:

  • I love that the teens in this book’s version of Phoenix spend their nights pool-hopping instead of doing drugs or getting drunk. It’s like Arizona’s answer to cow-tipping — rebellious in a non-lethal, only semi-illegal way 😆
  • Oh hey, no big deal, I just inadvertently ordered a signed copy of the first Love Stories book.
Photo of the My First Love title page.  There's a magenta heart inked over the i in "Callie West," and  her signature reads, "Look for my next book in the Love Stories series!"
Behold the magenta pen! The cheeky little heart over her name! The sneaky up-selling!

*

Cover of It Had to be You, by Stephanie Doyon.  A girl with dark blond hair and bangs rests her head and hands on a guy's shoulder.  The guy, who also has dark blond hair, is sitting backwards on a light blue chair.  

The mostly-white text to their right reads: "I'm in love with a guy I've never seen.  I've fallen for his heart, his soul, and his mind.  Of course it wouldn't hurt if he had a gorgeous smile..."

The words love, mind, and gorgeous are orange.

Stephanie Doyon. It Had to Be You. New York: Bantam, 1996.

Rating: 3 out of 5 times I want to whack Jordan for calling Rebecca “Becky” despite her explicit preference for “Rebecca.”

It’s basically You’ve Got Mail without the soul-crushing sacrifice of an independent bookstore. Rebecca Lowe lets her best friend talk her into creating an anonymous school e-mail account and posting a personal ad on their digital bulletin board.

At this point, my suspension-of-disbelief goggles turn into very amused skepticals. Not even in college was I allowed to create my own school e-mail addresses, let alone post personal ads in an official school forum. We all had assigned addresses with some no-nonsense variation of our first and last names.

Anyhoo, Rebecca’s Totally Skeptical until a very intriguingly down-to-earth guy responds to her ad with totally non-creepy sentiments about the beauty of sunsets and sweet perfume of lavender fields in Switzerland (no, really, it’s not at all cringey that her username happens to be Lavender!).

Within a week, Rebecca is head over heels for this cyberspace Casanova, and she’s convinced his true identity is exchange student Antonio Ramirez. Who else but a devastatingly sexy “Latin Lover” would be so poetic and well-traveled? Plus, his username is Carlos — a Spanish name! See, again, my note re: the portrayal of non-white characters :/

GIF image of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes saying "Not good?" and Martin Freeman as John Watson saying "A bit not good, yeah."

In any case, it couldn’t POSSIBLY be her obnoxious new bandmate, Jordan West, who’s definitely on a mission to replace her as manager. Everything about this guy, from his soap-box activism to his super fake dedication to the band, drives Rebecca up the firewall (eh? eh?). Plus, he keeps calling her “Becky,” which, yeah, is legitimately rude.

Anyhoo, the big Homecoming Dance is coming up and Rebecca finally gets up the nerve to ask Antonio out — sort of. She proposes the classic meet-me-at-the-dance scenario for their first in-person meet-up. She drops a few IRL hints to him in the halls, but he’s all poker-faced about it, which is just charmingly mysterious, right?

Oh, meanwhile, the band is having trouble finding gigs and Jordan has the infuriatingly helpful idea to make them the opening act at Homecoming. They do an amazing job. So amazing, in fact, that Rebecca’s somehow only mildly crushed when Antonio doesn’t show up at their arranged spot.

Even more inexplicably, she finds herself sympathizing with Jordan, who seems to be in a similar situation. Riding high on their musical success, Rebecca and Jordan decide to share a slow dance, which is when he reveals the devastating truth: HE’S CARLOS!!! 😮 😮 😮

GIF image of Luke Skywalker clinging to a column of the maintenance platform in The Empire Strikes Back.  He's shouting, "That's not true! That's impossible!"

Of course Rebecca immediately snaps back to hating Jordan because he’s OBVIOUSLY been messing with her this whole time and he never meant a word of what he wrote in his e-mails and Carlos-Santana-is-my-favorite-singer-my-foot and she’s never going to speak to him again!!!

TL;DR Of course Rebecca finally realizes the error of her assumptions and, after one disastrous date with Antonio (guess what? this totally three-dimensional foreigner is also overly handsy!), she also realizes the page count is ticking and she has to wrap up this hate-to-love romance stat.

She tearfully apologizes to Jordan as she begs him to step in for their conveniently injured lead guitarist at their first real-deal gig and the two things are totally unconnected and Jordan says maybe. But of course he shows up and they kiss and the book ends with them hiking up a snowy mountain to see the sunset.

Fun stuff:

  • Oh my Gigawatts, the late 90s of it all! The awkward first Chat Room experience! The quips about how this e-mail thing will never catch on! The PSAs about trusting strangers on the Internet!

There’s a subplot involving Rebecca’s best friend getting caught up in a cyber-romance with a supposed fellow-teenager from England and because this is a happy teen romance, it ends in harmless disappointment when the guy in question turns out to be a bunch of British high-schoolers playing a prank and the classmate they’re impersonating very kindly apologizes for the confusion.

GIF image of Lucille Ball shrugging very dramatically with a very "Oh Well" kind of expression.
  • Also, I love how this book portrays activism as a guy guilt-tripping his classmates into signing petitions against the fur industry by accusing them of “hurting helpless little animals” when they object to his use of graphic photos of dying animals. “OMG, you’re wearing a leather jacket?? What has that cow ever done to you, huh? Huh??” (that last quote’s more of a loose paraphrase ^_^; )

Aaaaand last, but absolutely not least…

*

Cover of Together Forever, by Cameron Dokey.  The O in Forever is really the outline of a red heart.

A guy with floppy dark hair holds his also-dark-haired girlfriend from behind, both of them facing the camera, both of them smiling lovingly at each other.  He's holding a bouquet of red roses against her stomach.

The mostly-black words to their left read, "Dean took me out for Valentine's Day and stole my heart.  Then I found out he's a Gemini - my very worst match (I'm a Scorpio).  Of all the signs in the zodiac, why did I fall for someone so wrong?

The words Valentine's Day, heart, Gemini, love match, Scorpio, zodiac, and wrong are in red.

He's wearing a beige dress shirt and khakis while she's wearing a tight sleeveless red dress that ends halfway to her knees.

Cameron Dokey. Together Forever. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5 bouquets of red roses dumped into the trash because of a super-dramatic misunderstanding.

This was the book I was most excited to order when I was twelve. This would cement my Coolness in the eyes of my seventh-grade peers! What could possibly top the off-the-charts romantic with a capital ROMANTIC tone of a book that takes place around Valentine’s Day itself?? Who would dare be unimpressed by the sublimely happy couple on the cover? And the premise was so beyond unique!

Joking aside, the book’s out-of-this-world premise is one of the reasons this book is still a ton of fun today. The only reason I took off a quarter of a point was because, as funny as this story was, I did have to keep pushing myself to pick it back up after every break. Once I’d start reading again, I’d remember why I enjoyed it in the first place, but the power of distraction was almost stronger than my curiosity in between sittings.

Anyway, Natalie Taylor knows only one thing for sure about romance: you can predict the success or downfall of any relationship based on the compatibility of the partners’ zodiac signs. Past heartaches make much more sense from this cosmic perspective. Her previous boyfriend, Garth, is a jerk because he’s a Gemini — the most unstable sign and the worst match for a Scorpio like Natalie.

Pause for Neri to raise a very indignant eyebrow at this wicked slander.

GIF image of a guy with short curly hair pointing dramatically and shouting, "Offense Taken!"

He's a side character in season 3 of Community.

Anyhoo, Natalie’s beyond confident that her new boyfriend, Dean, is a much more dependable Taurus. Their chemistry was obvious from the moment they met in English class, before Natalie got fatefully sidetracked by her crush on Garth. Dean is thoughtful, funny, and as crazy about her as she is about him.

But then Natalie learns the horrifying truth — Dean is actually ALSO A GEMINI!!!1! I’d insert a Darth Vader “NOOOOO” GIF here, but I don’t want to overwhelm the bandwidth. 😆

Deep down, this information makes no sense, but Natalie knows what she has to do. If she doesn’t break up with Dean now, he’s eventually going to break her heart. He won’t be able to help it. Geminis are just programmed that way.

Pause again as I try not to smack the book against the wall.

So Natalie dumps Dean, who is understandably flabbergasted. How could a girl dump a guy over a zodiac sign! She must have some other motive. She must actually still be into that Garth guy!

But as the week goes on, Natalie’s devotion to astrology starts to crack. She really did like Dean, and he seemed to genuinely reciprocate. Maybe her instincts mean more than her horoscope?

Of course, they can’t get right back together without passing through a series of dramatic misunderstandings. Dean catches Natalie seemingly throwing herself at Garth just a few hours after she and Dean shared a beautiful make-up snogging session. Natalie catches Dean spying on her after she agrees to his dare that she actually try dating her perfect zodiac match. They somehow cooperate long enough to throw their respective best friends a joint birthday party (oh, sub-plot: Natalie and Dean hook up their best friends, who just need an extra nudge to realize they’re Meant To Be).

Some loving parental advice convinces them to try one more time and they share a for-real make-up kiss in the fortune-telling booth of the school’s spring carnival.

Oh, and then Natalie finds out on the last page that Dean was actually born at midnight on May 21st Eastern Time. Which means, by Pacific Time (the story takes place in Seattle), he’s technically a Taurus!!!

GIF image of J.D. from Scrubs running with a pair of sparklers around a picnic table where his friends Turk and Carla kiss right after they get engaged.

Fun stuff:

  • Holy One-Liners, Batman! The burns! The Dokey moments! (I’m assuming these are the Love Stories equivalent of the BSC’s Lerangis moments — those clever quips that make you realize this book could’ve only been written by this ghostwriter.

Exhibits A, B & C:

“Hey, don’t think you can blame everything on guys,” I protested, feeling the need to come to the defense of my gender. Not that Natalie wasn’t right about a lot of guys, of course. But I could hardly take a comment like that one lying down. I’d be kicked out of the testosterone union.

Pg. 22

“She drove me to it, Mom,” I protested.
“That’s a load of horse manure and you know it, Dean.”

Pg. 160. Highlighting this one because look at that tastefully toned-down swear! From a parent, no less!

I’d counted sheep just to get the falling-asleep ball rolling. Then I’d counted shepherds. Then I’d counted lambs. About the time I was seriously contemplating running through the animals on Noah’s Ark, I decided the whole thing was an exercise in futility.

Pgs. 165-66
  • I also love how supportive Natalie’s mom is, even when she’s concerned about her daughter’s obsession with astrology. She very gently leads Natalie toward a more balanced view of relationships that uses the stars like Elizabeth Swann uses the Pirates’ Code — as a set of guidelines rather than laws.

    Which is why, of course, the book’s ending is so face-palmy in its switch to a Pirates 3 view of the Code. The story is trying to have it both ways, arguing for both instincts/choice AND astrology/fate.

Ah well, it’s all par for the rom-com course!

  • I also-also love how each chapter starts with a pretend Scorpio or Gemini horoscope (they alternate between Natalie’s and Dean’s p.o.v.) that foreshadows what’s going to happen in that chapter. And I triple-love the humorous reader horoscopes in the end pages. There’s quite a bit of tongue-in-cheek Taurus-trashing there. 😆
Photo of a flower pot with three white roses and a fuzzy red heart.

What about you, Bookwyrms? Read any endearingly ridiculous love stories lately? Any fond memories of 90s mass-market romance? Awww-inspire me in the comments!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Credits:

Cover image of My First Love from Carousell.sg. All other cover images from Amazon.

Sherlock Not Good GIF from gfycat.

Luke Skywalker GIF from gfycat.

Offense Taken GIF from gfycat.

I Love Lucy shrug GIF from giphy.

Scrubs GIF from makeagif.

7 comments

  1. OMG. The horoscopes! I love that each chapter starts off with a horoscope–that’s brilliant. And the whole idea that you can’t date someone unless your horoscopes match is so… teenage angsty and very 90s xD. I love it. I feel like so much of the YA novels I’ve read lately are so much more adult than these. BUT that could just be the TYPES of books I’m picking up to read. Great post!

    I recently read You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson. Not a ridiculous read by any means, but very sweet and was my top Valentine read for this year! ♥

    • Yes! I remember the whole horoscope/alien/space fashion phase we all went through in the 90s!

      I’ve also gotten the feeling that a lot of YA these days is reflecting the idea that kids have to learn to save the world as soon as possible because the adults in power are too busy acting like bratty teenage stereotypes to do it themselves.

      I’ve been meaning to read You Should See Me for a while now! There are so many adorable queer rom-coms on my TBR (one of them is literally called The Falling in Love Montage 😆).

  2. Oh wow. The pure, distilled 90s teenage drama… I’m flashing back to listening to Backstreet Boys CDs and whining that the school dress code doesn’t allow spaghetti straps.

    Middle-school me was too busy obsessing over anime and manga to read romcoms. Reading these reviews, I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed about that. 😂

    • Oh man, now I’M flashing back to school dress-code drama. My small-town Catholic high school was pretty relaxed, but there were still complaints about things like not being allowed to wear shorts before a certain date in May. One guy in my grade actually wrote an op-ed for our school newspaper about how it wasn’t fair that girls got to wear skirts year-round while guys had to suffer in long jeans and khakis between September and May.

      Sounds like you were a pretty awesome middle-schooler! I didn’t really discover the joy of Cardcaptors and Pokemon until high school.

  3. I totally get the cringiness factor with the Becky vs Rebecca. It’s no fun reading that sort of behavior over and over. Now, as for that horoscope one, that was just too fun! I mean, the concepts was super fun to think about 🙂

    • It was definitely cringey. 😝 And yes, the whole premise of Together Forever was fun enough to make up for the ridiculousness of the characters’ behavior. 😄

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