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That Was Then, This Is Now: P.S. I Love You

Welcome to a new regular feature! When I was a teenager and child I loved to reread books. Part of it was that I read a lot and it seemed like new books didn’t come in to the library quickly enough for me, and part of it was that I loved the comfort of a familiar, well-loved story. Now I find myself overwhelmed by the number of new books on my to-read list and rarely re-read anything. But I’m about to! In these blog posts I will reread a book that I loved as a teen. I’ll see if it lives up to the golden memory I’ve created about it, and also see whether or not it is something a teen today would actually enjoy (for a frame of reference, I was a teenager in the latter half of the 1980s). I’ll also be recommending some more contemporary titles that are similar to the book I read.

For this first trip down memory lane, I’ll be reading P.S. I Love You by Barbara Conklin. Published in 1981, it was part of the Sweet Dreams Romance paperback line. I was a huge fan of these paperbacks (my other favorite was How Do You Say Goodbye?, which I loved because the protagonist loved to bake) and read every one I could get my hands on. I considered P.S. I Love You to be a weepy tearjerker of the highest romantic quality, and I thought the girl on the cover looked positively dreamy in her lavender blouse. (For the record, when I mentioned this book to some friends one of them also said she thought the same thing about the cover.)

Here’s what I remember of the story: a girl and her family move into a house in swanky Palm Springs as housesitters. She feels poor and out of place, and when she meets neighbor Paul Straub, thinks he is a stuck up snob. Of course they fall in love, but they’ve got more than class differences to fight against because Paul is dying of leukemia! So sad! And the bit I thought the saddest and cleverest, the bit that has stayed with me more than 20 years, is that there are bumper stickers that say P.S. I Love You, meaning “Palm Springs I Love You,” but the protagonist thinks of them as “Paul Straub I Love You.” So that’s what I remember before rereading; let’s see if it lives up to the memory…

I’ve just finished reading it and I have to admit that I shed a few tears at the end, just like I did twenty-five years ago! That said, I’m not sure how well this holds up. Most of what I remembered was accurate, although the boy’s name is Paul Strobe, not Straub, and the girl’s name is Mariah. I had forgotten details like Mariah wanting to be a writer and loving “Gothic” books, and Paul and Mariah hiking on an Indian reservation and riding up a tram to a mountain top. I had also forgotten that Mariah writes letters to the girl who is staying in her own house, back in Laguna Beach. Although there weren’t pop culture details that dated the story, there were a few things that I think would give a teen reader today pause. Mariah doesn’t have her best friend’s address (the friend is also away for the summer) and so cannot write to her all summer long; her mother spends an evening answering mail; and Paul’s parents were old to be parents: his mother had him at the shockingly old age of thirty-nine (which is totally not old to have a baby now!).

What felt most dated to me, though, was the overall feeling of the story. Mariah and Paul fall in love, in love!, very quickly and we know this because we are simply told it. A hike, some games of backgammon, a family barbecue, and a kiss in the gazebo and suddenly Paul is saying “I love you for just what you are–just you–and I think you love me in the same way.” Their romance seemed so wholesome and even Mariah’s personality seemed of another time. Is it that she was so polite to her mother? Agreeable to everyone? Content to just sit on a rock next to Paul and hold his hand? I kept thinking that a reader today would demand a heroine who had not necessarily more of an edge to her, but had more emotion and depth. When I read Mariah saying, “I know they say a boy shouldn’t cry, but I think it’s okay if a man does,” I did not think she was deep and mature, I thought it sounded like a poorly written TV movie.

The other thing that really felt clunky to me now was the entire part about him having cancer. Perhaps in 1981 a teenager might say he’s just going to have some cysts removed and then a couple months later have some tests, and then another month later come across a letter from a doctor saying he has cancer and there’s nothing left to do. But I just don’t believe that would happen today. And I think any reader today would be wondering why Paul didn’t have chemotherapy, or why his cancer didn’t have a name. It definitely comes across as a vague, generic, all-purpose way to kill him off very nobly.

So did I like it? Did it hold up? I did enjoy rereading it, and I actually kind of liked Mariah, and it did make me cry at the end, but whether it’s poor writing, writing of the times, or just overall dated, I don’t think it would hold up at all to the standards of today’s savvy YA readers. It felt very shallow–too much telling, not enough showing! Maybe that’s just the way that paperback series was meant to be, but now there are many way better options. If you enjoy a romantic story, possibly a tearjerker, try one of these more contemporary options:

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson: Prejudice threatens the tender first love of Jeremiah and Ellie in this 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award recognized novel.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman: This 2010 Best Books for Young Adults selection is not quite a romance, but definitely has got heartfelt, deep emotion that will have you crying throughout and unsure what outcome to wish for.

I’d recommend pretty much anything by Sarah Dessen for a reader who likes realistic fiction that includes a romantic angle. One of my favorites is the 2003 Best Book for Young Adults title, This Lullaby. Remy is cynical about romance, but falls for a cute boy.

One of the appealing things about P.S. I Love You to this East Coast resident was the “exotic” California beach setting. When I read Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler (a 2010 Teens’ Top Ten nominee [pdf]), I also loved it sexy beachy summery setting. It’s not all sunshine, though, since Anna is keeping a secret about her very sad first love.

Similarly, The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han, a 2010 Best Books for Young Adults title, features boys, the beach, and one important summer.

Finally, Elizabeth Scott is well-known for the fantastically disturbing Living Dead Girl (a 2009 Quick Pick and a Teens’ Top Ten nominee), but she is also a terrific romance writer. Be sure to check out both Perfect You and Bloom.

Happy reading!

–Sarah Debraski, currently reading Loose Lips by Claire Berlinski

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Sarah Debraski

3 Comments

  1. Summer Hayes Summer Hayes

    Heh. I read this book back in the early 80’s and I, too, loved the clever business about the bumper sticker. I remember being terribly embarrassed for Mariah when she went to visit Paul and brought some sort of baked apple dessert with her only to overhear Paul’s mother making fun of it later (oh, the injustice of it all!). Maybe for your next review you can find the one about the two families that move to a farm in the middle of nowhere and the hot girl from one family belatedly realizes the nerdy boy from the other family is really her true love?

  2. I read these too, and I have to confess I picked them less on the basis of the plot and more by whether or not I liked the outfit on the model. Talk about judging a book by its model’s cover…
    I don’t remember the one about the farm. I DO remember Campfire Nights and thinking that I was missing out not going to camp.

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