Robin Constantine's debut YA novel The Promise of Amazing (Balzer + Bray) doesn't deliver on its titular promise. The classic bad boy/good girl romantic storyline is orbited by unconvincing elements — and the practically dictionary definition of troublesome "insta-love" isn't even the primary culprit.
In The Promise of Amazing, the perpetually mediocre Wren crosses paths with bad boy Grayson at her parents' medieval-themed banquet hall and wedding space when she saves him from choking on a pig in a blanket. Their pull to each other is instant, and they quickly start a relationship. Grayson was the popular lacrosse star at his private school until he was kicked out for running a stolen term paper ring, which hid an even larger, nefarious crime past. But meeting Wren, the good, quiet girl at school who gets by with passing grades, changes things for him, and he begins working at the banquet hall to get closer to her. The two switch off telling the story of their relationship — a familiar trope in YA by now — as they prepare for college applications and the future. Wren uncovers Grayson's criminal past and the relationship is tested by his lies as Wren starts to learn who she is and what she wants out of her life.
Constantine uses a tried and true setup for her novel, and she manages to infuse interesting plot elements to make the book stand out from its numerous predecessors, but ultimately it suffers from inauthenticity regarding teenage experience.
The details and dialogue about two teens and their friends seem dated and out of touch — so much so that it distracts from the story.
"That's too bad, 'cause Ima-out, my friendah" Grayson actually says to his friend Luke early in the story. "C'mon, Grayeesun, you know I'm just jabbin' at ya," Luke says later.
"C'mon squirt, let's fly," Wren's older brother Josh says to her. And Josh, who is characterized as "the cool one in the family" is written as jamming to his favorite band Blink-182, which doesn't seem authentic to a teenager in 2013.
Similarly the dialogue in the book is written in "teen speak" — if you are to believe that teens speak like their grandparents' fear they do. And while at times, maybe, the terminology is true, it's dated — "bestie" appears often, for example, as does "dis," when talking about insulting someone, and there's talk of a stepmother having a "cow."
After meeting Grayson, Wren looks for more information on him, which seems like a standard thing to do. But instead of consulting Facebook or other social media sources, she turns to a stack of old yearbooks. These dated and inauthentic details are almost laughable, but they could be overcome with a strong central relationship and engaging characters. Unfortunately, The Promise of Amazing has neither.
"Insta-love" is a phenomenon raging in, but not limited to, YA novels. It means that two characters have an immediate, mysterious love for each other when they barely know the other. Insta-love is separate from attraction, in that it's characterized as more than just interest, but some kind of fate. Often it's a way for the author to have a relationship between characters without the tedious work of putting it together; a classic example of telling versus showing. It's become so prevalent that there are lists dedicated to finding YA novels without it.
After the first meeting, Grayson has a classic insta-love moment.
"I caught [the keys], focusing on the task at hand instead of the gut feeling that meeting Wren was the start of something important."
Pages later, Wren echoes the sentiment.
"Something nagged at me though. Since the night I saved him, I'd felt a magnetic pull toward Grayson so strong, it scared me. I thought it was some sort of mystical thing."
Because the work isn't done to build the characters or relationship, it all falls flat. The major climax of the novel centers on a plot point with a "Love" necklace that's so contrived, you can see the end coming immediately when it happens. And, as for the characters, it's not that Wren is a good girl stereotype, it's that she's not much at all. The only characteristic Wren is saddled with is "quiet," but her actions throughout the book don't support that; it's as if readers are supposed to take at face value that Wren is a quiet girl merely because they're told over and over again by the author. Again, reiterating the problem of telling without doing the work of showing via the story.
"Grayson, I'm sick of people ... underestimating me. Thinking they can walk all over me because I'm not some loudmouth bitch," Wren says toward the end of the novel. It's problematic for a handful of reasons, but story-wise, because there has been no reason to believe that (a) Wren is quiet or (b) people walk all over her. There is one main female antagonist, Ava, but Wren has already stood up to her several times, as well as her teachers and Grayson's friends. The characterization doesn't add up. As a result, readers know nothing about the female protagonist driving the story.
Unfortunately most other female characters are also cardboard cutouts. Ava is only allowed to hang all over boys (which presents its own issues) and be rude. Wren's sister Brooke is characterized only as being gorgeous and "dazzling."
Grayson, and arguably his friend Luke, are the only characters allowed to have a little depth. The problem is, they aren't that interesting of people. When Wren and Grayson go on an early coffee date, Wren suggests Starbucks. Grayson retorts:
I don't do pretty coffee. I know this hole-in-the-wall deli with the best French roast around. You'll love it.
In short: The Promise of Amazing isn't. Even if you can get behind insta-love romances, it will be hard to get past the cardboard characters, particularly the women, and the dated references that make it hard to align yourself with the story. There are plenty of other novels in the genre to pick up.