I was talking with the owner of my local indie bookstore the other day, as you do, and we were both raving about books that somehow manage to deal with heavy topics without weighing down the reader and making them feel heavy too. I was a couple chapters into queer YA author Tess Sharpe’s latest book 6 Times We Almost Kissed (And One Time We Did) when I realized it was one of those special books. When you look at the cover — which emphasizes the romance and fanfic aspects of the book — you probably wouldn’t think it deals with any serious issues. It’s not that 6 Times We Almost Kissed isn’t a romance or an ode to fanfic. It absolutely is. But it’s also a searing look at grief, parental illness and death, rural medical access, trauma, and mental health. At the same time, it manages to be a swoony romance that will have you cheering for these two queer teen girls.
The two central characters in 6 Times We Almost Kissed are 17-year-old teen girls, Penny and Tate. Both are such full, real young women it’s a bit hard for me to remember that they are fictional! Tate has a reputation for being cold and aloof, which stems from her trying to keep herself together while her single mom has gone through not one but two major health crises. She cares very deeply for the few people she’s let get close to her and is incredibly loyal. She is a hardworking star on her swim team whose goal is to score a sports scholarship so she can go to college and earn enough so that her mom doesn’t have to worry about money anymore.
Equally strong and necessarily more mature and responsible than other kids her age is Penny. Although Penny is more emotionally open than Tate, she’s also been through a lot of trauma. Her dad died on a father-daughter rafting trip accident when she was 15, leaving her with permanent mobility issues in her hands and an emotionally negligent mother who abandoned Penny in her grief. Her mom has never made herself accountable or repaired their relationship. Penny loves the outdoors, especially the local river, and she is a planner and organization aficionado who outlines her life in steps in her bullet journal.
If you’re an avid fanfiction reader, right away you would have clocked Sharpe’s reference to “five times” fics, which she expands here to tell the intertwined lives of our heroines. She uses the structure to include snippets from different times in Penny and Tate’s high school years. Seeing Penny before her father’s death, before the trauma descends on her, is particularly bittersweet. Organizing the novel around these pivotal moments in Penny and Tate’s life allows Sharpe to not only give readers a full picture of Penny and Tate’s complicated history but to expertly pace the novel by slowly revealing the details of events that have been hinted at. It makes for an emotionally resonant, page-turning read.
In the present, these two young women are about to undergo another life-and-death event: Tate’s mom’s chronic illness has left her waiting for a liver transplant, and her best friend, Penny’s mom, has decided to become a living donor for her. In order to help both their families recover physically, emotionally, and financially from this exciting but scary endeavor, the “moms,” as Penny and Tate call them, decide to combine their households the summer before the girls’ last year of high school. If Penny and Tate were easy friends like you’d assume they would be with their mothers being lifelong friends, this wouldn’t be a hiccup. But while they’re not enemies, they’ve always kind of clashed. To put their moms’ health and recovery first, they make a pact to be nice and work together to present an easy, “everything is hunky dory” front for them.
The thing is, even if the moms weren’t both undergoing major surgery, Penny and Tate would be lying if they told their mothers that everything was fine between them. Because between bickering with each other and witnessing the best and worst of one another, they have a history of almost kissing. It’s a pattern that has followed them throughout their teenagehood, these odd little blips of undeniable attraction to each other that they have an unspoken agreement to ignore and never discuss after they happen. How on earth are Penny and Tate going to keep up this denial while living across the hall from each other and staying in Penny’s grandmother’s house alone with their moms recovering in Sacramento, hours away from their rural home?
They don’t, of course. The slow, slow burn of the story is Penny and Tate finally opening up to each other and being honest, mostly with themselves, about what it is that they actually want and what they actually mean to each other. It’s them finally seeing what everyone watching them from the outside sees, looking at these two and thinking, wow those are some soulmates right there. It’s so beautiful! After reading about the hardships each girl has gone through and how courageously they have fought for their own well-being, I can’t think of two other fictional queer girls who deserve a happy ending more. It’s difficult not to chant “kiss, kiss, kiss!” in your head while reading about all their almost kisses, even though Sharpe has already told you this isn’t the time their lips actually meet! And on more than one occasion, there is even only one bed that they have to share!!
The central romance is just one of the many compelling aspects of 6 Times We Almost Kissed. As someone who grew up in a rural place, I really appreciated how authentically rural this novel felt. Penny and Tate and their families live in the mountains in California; even though it’s a very different environment from where I’m from, I recognized a lot of details about Penny and Tate’s home and how they lived. They are the kinds of girls who know how to chop their own firewood to heat their house. They live in a place where you casually wait hours to carpool with someone because there is literally no other way to get around. Even when they’re mad at each other, they go for runs together because Tate has to keep up her training and it’s not good bear safety for her to run alone.
As complicated as Penny and Tate’s relationship is, Penny’s with her mom, Lottie, is even more so. For me it was the most painful part of the novel to read, even while Sharpe is careful to not make Lottie a simple villain. I mean, she’s giving her best friend half of her liver! But particularly as a new parent, reading about a parent who emotionally and physically abandons her kid in her grief for her husband was agonizing. On the one hand, I can’t imagine losing my partner suddenly in a tragic accident, and of course I have no idea how I would cope. On the other hand, I can’t imagine not putting my kid’s well being first and not openly communicating with and going through the process of grief with them instead of shutting them out. Sharpe smartly doesn’t wrap up Penny and Lottie’s story arc; there’s no moment where Lottie does a grand apology or where Penny forgives her. The focus is on Penny as her own person; she makes her own steps forward in healing journey apart from her mom, which is so affirming to witness.
Sharpe’s prose throughout the novel is thoughtful and evocative. She writes alternating chapters from Penny and Tate’s point of views, and their voices are clearly differentiated. Tate’s distracted mind often inserts parenthetical asides. Penny’s voice oozes with her practicality and tendency to organize. Simple metaphors and similes are incredibly effective at revealing the girls’ emotions, especially about each other. Tate tells us: “I’m sitting here, hanging on her words like she’s a cliff I’ve slipped from.” Penny thinks, after Tate says “Penny”:
“It’s just my name. I’ve heard it hundreds of times in my life. But this time, she kind of sighs it through her fingers as if she’s trying to hold it in. As if it’s suddenly become a secret I’m not supposed to hear.”
It’s a rare book indeed that manages to instill so much compassion and nuance into its exploration of weighty topics like grief and trauma while also creating an incredibly dreamy romance for the ages. To experience such a nail-biting, slow burn romantic plot starring two full, rich young queer women characters is thrilling. Even with less page time as supporting characters, the moms as well as Penny and Tate’s respective best friends, are just as compelling and authentic. 6 Times We Almost Kissed is a knockout. As Tate’s best friend tells her about Penny: “In every room you’re in, you’re always looking for her, Tate.”
Tess Sharpe, I’ll always be looking for your next book on every bookstore and library shelf.