I’m now several years into feeling slightly sheepish whenever I tiptoe into the Young Adult fiction section of the bookstore, I naturally find myself having opportunities to read more and more books geared towards teenagers. And I consistently find that there are many books being written for young adult audiences that I would have adored when I was in high school, proving that eschewing Percy Jackson for Jonathan Franzen isn’t always the step towards maturity and sophistication you think it’s going to be. (Give me high schoolers with magic powers saving the world any day over another book about a sad-sack middle-aged professor having an affair with his adoring student.)
When I was in the target demographic for young adult fiction, I definitely skewed towards reading books like Don Zolidis’ The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, for one, and, of course, King Dork chief among them. I’d always preferred young adult books with male protagonists because I honestly related more to them than to, say, Sarah Dessen’s girls. Boys in these kinds of stories, I found, were allowed to be sexually frustrated, use profanity and filthy humor, and were, more often than not, massive nerds in an era when that sort of thing wasn’t (yet) monetized to the hilt. I wasn’t a Dungeons and Dragons nerd like the titular Craig and his coterie of equally geeky friends—my tastes ran more towards manga and anime and an embarrassing middle-school weeaboo phase—but that identification with a subculture just outside of the mainstream is something that immediately made me see myself in Craig. The girls of YA, on the other hand, tended towards heart-bursting romance and tragedy—neither of which I experienced during high school, making those kinds of stories come across as cliched at best and disingenuous at worst.
As I look back on what I read as a young adult, there were far too many of the usual tendencies towards judging attractive girls as shallow, too much designated sympathy for Nice Guy protagonists who can’t get the girl to date him, too much wish-fulfillment tongue-wagging masquerading as authenticity. Fortunately, The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig admirably and nimbly eschews the simmering misogyny present in a lot of young adult fiction geared towards teenage boys. Although Craig is the protagonist and character whose points of view we experience, he’s definitely not always sympathetic; and while Amy is largely the love interest in this story (and, naturally, subject to Craig’s internal monologues about how attractive she is), she’s given a rich inner life and a real sense of purpose outside of Craig entirely.
The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig follows Amy and Craig over an excruciating seven break-ups and make-ups over the course of their senior year of high school. She’s the pretty, well-liked valedictorian; he’s a Dungeons and Dragons aficionado with three friends to his name. They meet at the school’s youth government club, where Craig tries to get her attention by introducing a bill to glue leaves back onto the trees. Obviously, no one can understand why they’re together. I’m not going to get into the mechanics of their rocky relationship, because, frankly, it’s the least interesting aspect of the novel. Amy (who in my head is played by Angourie Rice) has family issues that rightfully take up most of her mental and emotional energy, while Craig’s own entitled attitude and tendency to idealize Amy leave him with his foot in his mouth on multiple excruciating occasions.
What elevates The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig are the characters themselves—both the protagonists and those relegated to the fringes. Zolidis consistently zigs where you expect him to zag, especially in the characterization of Kaitlyn, Craig’s more popular twin sister. Initially, it seems as though Kaitlyn is the classic mirror image of Craig: social where he’s introverted, pretty where he’s average-looking, athletic where he’s more of an indoors-y type, superficial where he’s intellectual—and because we’re in Craig’s head for the entirety of the narrative, we’re perfectly happy to go along with how Craig sees her. But as Craig begins to acknowledge his general geek-snobbery and self-centered attitude, we’re allowed to see that Kaitlyn was always a decent human being the whole time—one who, importantly, sets Craig’s head straight about expecting Amy to sleep with him just because she’s slept with her previous boyfriend. I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a male protagonist in fiction get so completely schooled on that double standard by his own sister, who, in turn, is presented as being in the right—not as some strawman feminist or caricature.
Additionally, The Seven Torments of Amy and Craig excels in how the relationship between Craig and his father is similarly unraveled and teased out over the course of the story. Craig’s father never went to college, instead entering a manufacturing job right out of high school, while Craig fancies himself at swanky liberal arts school Gustavus Adolphus College, so there’s immediately a tension at play between Craig and his dad about what it means to be a man. Craig’s dad is the kind of guy who owns a room with multiple guns, who awkwardly jokes about there being a lot of lesbians at Craig’s dream school—a kind of archetype you can sort of fill in for yourself based on what Craig initially tells us about him. A particularly hilarious early chapter details Craig and his dad’s annual hunting trip into the Wisconsin wilderness—a ritual Craig dreads beyond all measure—that serves as an annual reminder for both Craig and his father that their approaches to masculinity are pretty far apart. But as Craig’s family comes on hard times—Craig’s dad loses his job, leaving him feeling both useless on a daily basis and purposeless as a father and provider— Craig, and the reader, come to view him with more and more understanding and empathy.
Essentially, Zolidis understands his creation so well that he’s not afraid to let us realize how wrong-headed and judgmental Craig can be, even if it means exposing him as a totally unreliable narrator. It’s as if Zolidis, a playwright whose work is often produced in schools, has actively absorbed the changes in conventional thinking about gender—ending slut-shaming, fighting toxic masculinity—that have become commonplace over the past several years. He has crafted a story about high-school romance—ill-begotten and volatile as it can be—that is genuinely emotional and funny, and honors all of its characters, regardless of gender. I expect Netflix will be knocking on Zolidis’ door any day now.