I’m starting with my thesis right off the bat here: Ciara Smyth is one of the best authors in queer YA right now. Granted, she’s only two books into her career — The Falling In Love Montage (2020) and Not My Problem (2021) — but both are as hilarious as they are moving, with a very authentic and empathetic feel to her queer teenage characters. There are few YA authors whose characterization truly reminds me of being a teenager myself and who show that they really know and respect today’s teens, but Smyth is the real deal!
I recently finished Not My Problem, berating myself for being late to the party, as it was published in May last year. It is quite simply contemporary (queer) YA at its finest. I closed the book (metaphorically, since I was listening to the audio version) declaring that I would follow
Ciara Smyth wherever she and her writing went from now on. Not My Problem is laugh-out-loud funny, make-you-cry sad, and everything in between.
The novel is about 16-year-old Aideen, an Irish lesbian in her transition year who is struggling to keep the pieces of her life together. Her friendship with her longtime best friend Holly has slowly been deteriorating, with Holly becoming increasingly distant and indifferent. Her single mam has been left (again) by her piece of shit dad — who’s married and has kids with someone else — and is coping by starting to drink again. Aideen is falling behind and getting increasingly bad grades in all her classes. She feels responsible for taking care of her mam, and it’s cutting into her responsibilities at school.
This sounds like a lot; it is a lot. But Not My Problem is far from heavy. Partly because Aideen is such a wonderfully funny character, whose sarcastic jibes can compete with the best. But it’s also that Smyth refuses to wallow in the bad stuff and allows Aideen to be a well rounded teenager who’s not defined by being poor, or “at risk,” or the kid who’s had social services involved in her life. The book features ample high school shenanigans, queer crushes, new friendships, and an entrepreneurial endeavor with a very teenage feel.
It’s this entrepreneurial endeavor that is the catalyst for the plot. Aideen is minding her own business, having gotten out of gym with yet another parental note, which of course she writes herself. In the bathroom, she runs into Maebh, the principal’s daughter who is the definition of overachiever. Maebh is having a breakdown because of her overwhelming schedule and the pressure (external and internal) to excel at everything. She can’t possibly do it all, but the idea of quitting anything is laughable. When Aideen makes a joke that she’ll just have to break her ankle so she can quit all the sports teams and skip gym class, Maebh jumps on the idea, until she’s begging Aideen to just give her a little push down the stairs. When Aideen finally scrunches her eyes closed and relents, it’s a success: but only a sprain, luckily. It’s a bizarre yet bonding beginning for a burgeoning romance between Aideen and Maebh, as well as a very cute friendship trio between Aideen, Maebh, and Kavi, a guy who’d been sent to find the two girls and couldn’t help overhearing what happened.
Overachieving Maebh is mostly reviled at her school, though, for being too smart for her own good and for having too much earnest enthusiasm about stuff like environmental activism and school politics. Aideen first sees her as an enemy, and that’s not just because Maebh is the academic and athletic rival of Holly, Aideen’s best friend. Maebh has a reputation for being, well, annoying. She knows better and is cleverer than almost everyone and she doesn’t hide it. Of course, there’s a vulnerability in her that Aideen first glimpses in the bathroom and that is slowly revealed as the girls get to know each other. Although they first laugh it off, they later discuss how serious it is that Maebh was willing to harm herself instead of talking to her parents and cutting down on her insane schedule.
But back to Aideen the teenage entrepreneur. Kavi, although he faithfully keeps the promise of not repeating any details of what happened with Maebh and Aideen, does pass on the idea that Aideen is a cool kid who is up for doing unorthodox favors. Cue the teenage shenanigans I mentioned earlier. Soon her classmates are vying for Aideen’s favors, for which the only payment she asks is an unspecified favor in return in the future. Being the do-gooder at heart that Aideen is, she mostly uses these payment favors to do favors for the next teen who desperately needs her help, whether it’s buying the morning-after pill for someone whose dad is the chemist (pharmacist for us North Americans), breaking into the school to delete sexts off a confiscated cell phone, or helping a kid with super strict parents sneak out of the house and go to a party.
Aideen initially wants to orchestrate the favors all by herself, wanting to minimize the risk of others getting in trouble. But one of the lessons she learns over the course of the book is that it’s a sign of strength to ask for help when you need it. It’s a deeply moving journey that Aideen does not make without multiple stumbles. But even when she’s making big mistakes and pushing people away because she’s internalized the idea that she can only depend on herself, Aideen is effortlessly lovable. I wish I’d had a cool lesbian friend like her as a teenager!
Aideen’s also learning how to make new friends and evaluate what makes a good friend. There is a friend breakup scene in this book that was so real and sad I had tears streaming down my face as I was reading. But I’m always thrilled to see friendship breakups given the gravity they deserve. At the same time, Aideen’s burgeoning friendship with Kavi and Maebh, brought together by the favor business, is a true delight. A particularly memorable scene at a party has the three friends sitting in a bathtub wearing only towels while their rain drenched clothes and underwear dry in the host’s dryer. A heart-to-heart of the kind that can only occur when you’ve been through the kind of wild adventure that they just have and are essentially naked and vulnerable ensues.
Smyth’s first book, The Falling In Love Montage, similarly gives the spotlight to an Irish lesbian teen who is having difficulty being vulnerable. It follows the protagonist Saoirse for the summer after she graduates from high school. She meets a girl staying in her seaside town named Ruby. Ruby is a rom-com aficionado, and she convinces Saoirse to embark on a tour through the tropes of rom-coms — hence the title — like going to a fair and having a phone conversation where neither of them want to hang up.
Saoirse is determined to keep the relationship light and fun, despite her growing feelings for Ruby. There are a lot of reasons: her best friend turned girlfriend who she thought she’d be with forever broke up with her recently. Saoirse is terrified of having her heart broken again. The fallout soured her friendship with their mutual friend too.
But most of all, it’s the fact that her mom has early onset dementia and lives in a full time care home. Saoirse visits her every day but her mom no longer remembers who she is. Her mom’s condition is genetic, and it’s making Saoirse feel like it’s not worth investing in anything: a relationship, or the conditional acceptance she’s received to Oxford. She’s also furious at her dad, who wants to get remarried.
As you can tell, The Falling In Love Montage isn’t the lighthearted rom-com the cover might lead you to believe, although rom-com fans will enjoy all the references sprinkled throughout. If you’re looking for an HEA, this is not your book. Instead, though, Smyth opts for an equally sad, funny, and thoughtful story that feels very true to an older queer teen’s experiences and mistakes.
If you haven’t had a chance to pick up either of Ciara Smyth’s YA books, I highly encourage you to! If you are not Irish, like me, I recommend the audiobook format so you can luxuriate in the Irish accents and relax knowing that people and place names are being pronounced as they should be. Have you already read The Falling In Love Montage (2020) and/or Not My Problem (2021)? Join me in the comments to talk about them!