If you’ve never read a Rachel Cohn and David Levithan novel before, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for example, you’re in for a treat. The authors write in alternating chapters, sending them back and forth without planning the story before hand and thus creating truly unexpected situations. Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is chock-full of adventures (like venturing into a seedy nightclub alone, when you’ve never been out alone before), laughs (like retrieving a notebook from a particularly touchy-feely Santa), and heartfelt moments (like Dash’s awkward-but-nice reunion with his ex). And though sometimes the intentionally pretentious language gets in the way, it’s impossible not to get sucked into Dash and Lily’s adventures.
It’s Christmas time in New York City and both our protagonists have been abandoned. Dash has intentionally misled his divorced parents into thinking he was spending the holidays with the other, and is left home alone. Lily, on the other hand, is the reluctant victim to her parent’s 25-years-late honeymoon vacation to Fiji.
Our story begins with Lily:
Alone, bored and disappointed, Lily pesters her college-aged brother and his boyfriend to entertain her until, in efforts to get rid of her, brother Langston conjures up the red notebook, fills it with dares designed to get Lily a boyfriend, and plants it in the Strand (saying its a bookstore might be understating it). It is there that Dash finds the notebook that leads him into a treasure hunt throughout the store before he leaves his first message to Lily. The red moleskin notebook travels between Lily and Dash, leading them all through New York City, and becoming the only place where they can truly express themselves.
This novel is, at its heart, a love story. But unlike to many teen stories where the characters meet and instantly know they are destined to be in love forever, that they cannot live without the other, Dash and Lily’s relationship progresses slowly and naturally. This is not a story about unhealthy all-consuming infatuation leading to dramatics, tantrums and the inevitable “I can’t live without you” line. Instead, it’s about two teens gradually getting to know each other and eventually deciding that a relationship is maybe, just maybe, worth the shot. This idea might seem underwhelming at first, but there is something incredibly romantic about two people deciding to risk pain and heartbreak, just to see if things can work out. The rationality in the choices they make turns the story more romantic, not less.
Dash is slightly neurotic and is aptly described as ‘snarly’ but Lily’s relatives. He takes on qualities that remind the reader of Holden Caulfield (the famous protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye) with all his superiority and negativity. Initially, Dash is not a very likable person. He speaks and writes in ways that makes him hard to understand, in ways that make you wonder just who this kid thinks he is. But slowly, with Lily’s unwitting influence, he begins to change. Levithan does a wonderful job in developing Dash’s character, making subtle changes throughout the novel so that in the end he’s more hopeful and positive, but is still the same person.
Lily is adorable, though she seems to suffer from a multiple-personality disorder. Depending on where she is, and who she’s with, she shows a different side of herself. Sometimes, she’s a little girl, maybe 10 at the most, who’s lost in the world and misses her mommy and daddy. She’s naïve and misses her gerbil and wants nothing more than to have another pet. Other times, she’s an awkward, sheltered teen. She’s inexperienced, naïve and, at 16, goes by Lily Bear. This girl is withdrawn into a world of baking and dog walking and knows nothing about girlfriends or boys. And at other times, she’s a regular teenager, moving and speaking like any other teenage girl, engaging in choirs of ‘obvs’ as if she’d done it all along. The real Lily might be somewhere closer to awkward teen, but she changes so constantly, it’s hard to tell.
But together, Dash and Lily are a perfect duo. His experience and views on the world are the perfect complement to Lily’s naiveté, just like her positive outlook is the perfect remedy to Dash’s jadedness. Together, they have big ‘conversation’s (most through the red moleskin, with becomes a character in itself) that are sometimes too big for 16-year olds, like their deep ‘what do you really want for Christmas’ discussion, to pondering why Dash feels the way he feels about the holidays.
Like in the previous Cohn and Levithan novels, there are several moments that stick to your head. For example: Dash and Lily trying to control an uncontrollable monster of a dog, which knocks over a baby that Lily, jumping in from far away, manages to catch mid-air. There are also unforgettable lines, like Dash’s comment after entering the Macy’s vicinity a couple of days before Christmas: “. . . if I didn’t escape soon, a children’s choir would pop up and carol me to death.” But there are also strange lines driven by the pretentious vocabulary, like Dash’s comment to Lily when she’s baking: “Your lightness. . . its disarming.” Somewhere in between those lines, a balance is struck and Dash and Lily create a wonderful story around them.
Overall, this novel is a winner. Cohn and Levithan write their characters with all the flaws and thoughts of real teens, not watering them down even one little bit. The story moves through unexpected twists and turns, and in the end, you’re left wanting more.