Desi, a smart nerd and president of her senior class, has never had a boyfriend in “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” (FSG 2017) by Maurene Goo. Desi’s attempts at flirtation are so disastrous, that her two closest friends, Wes and Fiona, call them “flailures”—flirtation and failure? Get it?
Her neurosurgeon mother died when Desi was quite young. Desi lives with her auto mechanic father, Appa. Both parents came to California from Korea before Desi was born. Desi works hard to make Appa happy, but it’s hard for her to understand why he’s smitten with Korean soap operas, called K dramas. Until she realizes that here is the formula for romance. So she analyzes them for the steps to snag a boyfriend.
Goo both honors and deconstructs the romance formula via Desi’s analyzed steps. The first three of twenty-four steps, which also become the chapter titles are: “1. You are the Living Embodiment of All That is Pure and Good. 2. Have a Sad-Sack Family Story. 3. Meet the World’s Most Unattainable Guy.”
Unattainable Luca, transfers to Desi’s California high school. He’s a gorgeous graffiti artist and his social media presence reveals his fame. Desi’s heart starts a-beating. None of this would work if it weren’t so funny:
Desi asks Luca for a ride home from school.
“He cleared his throat. “Uh, well, I don’t know if we live close to each other.”
“What! We both live in Monte Vista, how freaking far could I possibly be from your house.” . . .You’d think I’d asked him to make a colonoscopy appointment.”
Desi is no shrinking violet. She’s flighty, smart, funny—and smitten. The combination makes for a charming character. Her flailures are pretty extreme. She didn’t want to look like she was coming on to him so she wears baggy sweatpants when she joins Art Club, where she figures she’ll see Luca. At the moment she asks him a favor, her sweatpants fall to the floor into a puddle at her ankles. Of course she’s humiliated. And everyone, including the reader, is laughing. Even before she begins her ridiculous pursuit, Luca is charmed by nerdy Desi.
In not too long, Desi and Luca are a couple. Desi accompanies Luca when he illegally “tags” public property. Specifically, he adds to and deepens other taggers’ existing graffiti and the art sounds pretty amazing.
Of course Luca eventually finds Desi’s written list of steps and his high-integrity artist self freaks and drops her. Desi is devastated.
The story plays out exactly along the lines of the analyzed steps/chapter titles, but Desi is oblivious. Still, Desi has a lot of life outside the romance.
Along the way you get a contrast between Korean and American cultures—the meaning of a hug; Desi’s description of Korean class distinctions. One gripe: the gorgeous girl on the book cover is not the girl I read about. Desi has so much more going on than physical beauty.
Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker talesforallages.com