Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock is a sweet and gutsy coming of age book about two girls living in Otago, New Zealand. It won the New Zealand Post Book of the Year Award in 1998 and took out the top prize in the Senior Fiction category (the biggest book awards in New Zealand).
Louie and Willa are well-drawn characters with whom readers can sympathise and admire. The book alternates between their viewpoints. Louie is an outgoing, funny actor with a wide circle of friends, a close-knit Italian family and an overbearing mother. Willa is down-to-earth, quiet, a daredevil. She lives in the pub where her mother works. She has a dog called Judas and wants to be a chef.
Refreshingly, Louie welcomes her crush on Willa. She doesn’t doubt how she feels, but only wants for Willa to want her back. She’s delighted when she does. Louie thinks, of her first kiss with Willa, “this is my first kiss. It wasn’t, of course, she’d kissed a number of boys…” She feels disbelief:
“not that she was in love with a girl, for it seemed suddenly absolutely natural that she be in love with this girl – but that, god only knew how, this girl should love her back!”
Willa is more experienced and less certain. Once bitten, twice shy; she’s still living with the consequences of a backlash of betrayal and homophobia from her last love affair. Willa meets Louie after transferring to her school after the scandal at her last. She walks into Louie’s life when she gets a part-time job in the same takeaway shop as Louie.
Within sentences of Willa’s introduction in the book she is dealing with sexual harassment in a way that made me – and Louie, and anyone who’s ever had to put up with shitty treatment from their bosses – want to cheer her out loud. This is something Boock does well. Her female characters are realistic, not superheroes, but they stand up for themselves. It’s a minor scene but it is so important: I’d be delighted for my (potential) teenage daughter to read this. Characters call out inappropriate behaviour and Boock holds this up as admirable. It’s the polar opposite to something like Twilight’s normalisation – even celebration – of abusive and predatory behaviours.
One thing I love about this book is that Boock’s characters have passion. I’m not talking about physical passion/sex (although there are some age-appropriate erotic scenes) but rather the main characters’ talents or interests. This is a fantastic change from characters whose whole lives revolve around the love interest (cough Twilight again cough). Louie and Willa encourage each other and recognise each other’s talents. Louie pours her heart and soul into performing. Willa does the lights for the Twelfth Night production that Louie stars in, and both girls are genuinely proud of each other’s different skills.
Boock is writing for young adults and Louie and Willa are teenagers. Perhaps because of this, there is inevitable angst. When I first read this book in my early teens, I was rather a late bloomer and had no experience with romance or dating so I thought the angst in the third quarter of the book was a little much. Now I’ve been dumped once or twice, it rings a lot truer.
Like all love stories, there is a depressing, frustrating stretch in the middle of novel where everything goes wrong, and girl loses girl, for a while. Here, it’s triggered by Louie’s disapproving mother. Louie’s embrace of her sexual identity, and most importantly of Willa, the speed with which she gave in to her family’s demands was a little hard to swallow. Despite all this, you really want Louie and Willa’s relationship to succeed. The dramatic climax doesn’t bring the book out of the angsty zone, but it does differ from more conventional rom-com reunions.
Boock’s exploration of religion and homosexuality is also interesting. We see religion as both a destructive and affirmative force. Willa’s former girlfriend, Cathy, has a religious-nutter family that drive her to attempt suicide and demonise Willa. By contrast, Louie’s sneakers-wearing priest (Father Campion, who quotes Leviticus sarcastically) delivers a pretty nice speech about the goodness of love and the compatibility of religion and sexuality, which sounds soppier here than it is in the book (“love comes from God. And so, to turn away from love… is to turn away from God"). Other strengths of the book are the sense of place and the honest depiction of family dynamics.
Louie and Willa provide fantastic role models for young women both in their loving relationship, their (mostly) positive exploration of young lesbian identity, and their personal interests and qualities. The book’s not perfect, but it is funny, moving, realistic and engaging. I’d recommend it for mid-to-late teens, but it can be enjoyed by older and younger.
- New Zealand Post Book Awards 1998
- Book of the Year Award Winner
- Senior Fiction Winner
You can buy Dare, Truth or Promise from Amazon as a hardback or paperback.
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