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Love-shy - Lili Wilkinson Expectations (aka Judging a Book By Its Cover) Looking at Love-shy now, all cute and snuggled up on the shelf next to A Pocketful of Eyes, I don’t think it’s that difficult to see how my misconceptions of this book might have been birthed. Like its predecessor, Love-shy is a burst of colour, unapologetically eye-catching. There’s a girl on the cover that looks like she just stepped off a tram on Swanston Street. A terrarium. A silhouetted figure, the sole muted spot in a sea of brightness. It’s called “Love-shy”, for crying out loud. A glance over the blurb and I thought I had it all worked out: Brash, assertive girl + shy, retiring guy = quirky romantic comedy. Reality (or, Rey gets schooled by Lili Wilkinson which is the best way to get schooled, of course) Not that there’s anything wrong with quirky romantic comedies. I quite enjoy them. But Love-shy defied almost all of my expectations and I love that about it. It kept me on my reading-toes. It surprised me almost immediately and continued to do so. I read it over the course of a few hours, waiting around in an airport and during that time I both laughed out loud and cried. I don’t know who was more taken aback by that: me, or the people giving me the side-eye across the terminal. In Penny, the precocious if somewhat tact-challenged main character of Love-shy, Wilkinson delivers one of the strongest YA voices I’ve encountered this year. Part Bindy Mackenzie, part Paris Geller, part something else entirely, Penny is force of a character**. Her personality punches through the pages: intelligent, direct, driven, logical. And although her character grows throughout the story, the plot compelling her through a marked internal arc, her authenticity never falters. Wilkinson shows a great deal of integrity in her development of Penny. Despite the fact that she’s an undeniably thorny character at times, Wilkinson embraces her in such a way that makes it almost impossible not to do the same as a reader. She pulls off a character that’s simultaneously difficult and endearing, repellent and relatable. For some reason, I thought that the plot of the Love-shy would largely revolve around Penny’s quest to identify the love-shy guy at her high school, interspersed with lots of comedic shenanigans and some sort of frolic off into a sunset of opposites-attracting. No surprise that I’m mostly wrong. Instead, by unveiling the object of Penny’s investigations fairly early in the course of events, Wilkinson allows the story to delve much deeper into their respective characterisation by means of their ongoing interactions. And Love-shy becomes a weightier book for it. One that is more serious, more articulate, and ultimately more moving than I anticipated. Love-shy is a story about the way people can spend their lives building complicated defences around themselves. About fortifying the walls that protect their fragile inner worlds. Regardless of whether this is based upon lack of confidence, past trauma, deeply entrench patterns of belief, anxiety disorders or the like – Love-shy examines the complex lengths those affected may go to in order to feel safe and in control, and the way such feelings impact their lives and relationships. By exploring these themes through two seemingly polar opposite characters, Wilkinson demonstrates that isolation, loneliness and fear do not discriminate. While each individual experience is different, the emotions are universal. And that the process of gaining insight, or developing empathy for another can often leave us vulnerable, exposed to our own buried fears. By the end of the novel, each of the characters and the journey they had made together had genuinely touched my heart. That wasn’t something I had prepared for when I read the hilarious opening chapter, but its what changed Love-shy from a good novel to a great one, for me. Add to this the sharpness of Lili Wilkinson’s writing, her ability to write about teenagers with honesty and humour, the refreshing diversity of her cast – and Love-shy is one of my favourite Australian YAs this year. **Somewhat disturbingly, Penny is pretty much a literary doppelganger of my high school nemesis. Yes, I had a high school nemesis. Stop looking at me like that. Occasionally I’d just stop reading this book and wonder: “How do you know, LIli Wilkinson!? HOW DO YOU KNOW?”