The Secret of Ella and Micha
Ella and Micha have been friends forever, seeing each other through their difficult childhoods. However, after a series of tragic events, Ella realises that she needs to leave her past behind and flees to college, leaving Micha behind with no idea of where she is or whether she will ever return. While Micha has searched for her, suspended in place by the night she disappeared, Ella has spent the year reinventing herself but she can’t stay away forever and, come summer break, she finds herself returning to a house full of bad memories and the boy next door who won’t take no for an answer.
Ella is a character who will be quickly familiar to any readers of the newly minted New Adult genre. Damaged by a past that involves both violence and neglect, she’s trying desperately to change her life. Brittle, suspicious and fragile she’s also resourceful and smart – she got herself to college, made new friends, funded herself and seems to generally have her head screwed on the right way. However, she’s clearly not come to terms with the events of her past and needs someone to help her do so. So far, so NA protagonist. And she really doesn’t get much more original. The best that can be said for Ella is that she’s vaguely likeable and her character’s mental health is handled with a degree of care. Her treatment of Micha is understandable, while selfish, and her reluctance to spend time with him a measure of her desire to escape a past she doesn’t really understand.
Micha, sadly, is also all too familiar. When Ella returns he is understandably angry and hurt, as well as worried. This could have been a great way to create a sympathetic, conflicted character but instead Micha reacts by turning into the rapidly emerging stereotypical male of the genre. In order to get the attention of a girl whom he knows to be deeply damaged, he flirts with people in front of her, climbs unbidden into her bed (sadly another well-worn scenario in the world of NA), slides his hand up her skirt in public and states that he “has to have her”, seeming to truly believe that his moronic, testosterone fuelled claim on her will somehow ease her troubled past. What a PRINCE! In the few chapters in which Micha manages to get his mind away from his nethers, he actually comes across as quite a nice, thoughtful guy and later does address Ella’s long-standing intimacy issues but it’s too little, too late. To be honest, the fact that he recognises that she has intimacy issues at all only sheds an even nastier light on his possessive, pushy behaviour.
The Secret of Ella and Micha is frustrating in that it has the potential to be so much more. The issues raised are interesting, the family dynamics curious and the gorgeous best friend, desperately worried for his neighbour should be breath-takingly romantic. But this is New Adult, people, and so rather than focus on the aforementioned plot points, The Secret of Ella and Micha focuses largely on sex. Now sex scenes are fun, hell, more books should have them, but New Adult as a genre seems to use sex instead of storyline, regularly mixing it into stories in which the girls are damaged and the boys are lined up to convince them that therapy won’t work as well as a good dicking. Certainly, consensual sex has a role in these storylines, with Ella and Micha it certainly represents her starting to overcome some issues, but the way in which the men in NA push their desire onto the women is, quite frankly, a bit icky – I don’t care how gorgeous they are.
This isn’t the first NA book that has disappointed me. I keep reading the genre in the hope that one will appear that will illustrate to actual New Adults (whatever they are) that the start of your adult life isn’t necessarily filled with trauma and sexual manipulation. Thus far, the best New Adult books I’ve read haven’t been published under that particular genre label but rather remained in the YA bracket. Both Where She Went by Gayle Forman and Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara look at issues surrounding a troubled past and an uncertain future, both feature protagonists in their late teens/early twenties and both feature sex; both, critically, handle it all far better than anything on the NA shelves, including, sadly, The Secret of Ella and Micha.