22. A sequel: The Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan
List Progress: 8/30
I have been trying to keep myself out of my reviews lately, to make them more accessible to a wider audience. But there is no way for me to have distance or remove when talking about Empress of the World, the 2001 young adult novel by Sara Ryan. The story about teenage girls Nic and Battle meeting at an academic summer camp was one of my first introductions to queer literature, and spurred on my own personal queer awakening (and possibly my love of academic summer camps). But I had never read the 2007 sequel, The Rules for Hearts. Reading the sequel in my thirties, while sitting next to my wife, certainly added some context that young Alanna never would have imagined. But no matter what age you read it at, Ryan has a skillful touch with messy emotions, and The Rules for Hearts does get quite messy.
A year after the events of Empress of the World, Battle Hall Davies is getting ready to attend Reed College in Portland. Her estranged older brother Nick has reached out to invite her to live with him and his housemates over the summer. She is eager to reconnect with her very charming brother, who she has missed desperately, but despite being the one to reach out, he seems far more preoccupied with his own life. Battle joins a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream that he is in, gets to know his friends (and his boyfriend), and starts a disastrous fling with a housemate who also has a past with Nick, but nothing she does gets her any attention or consideration from her brother. Nick is, in short, a fuckboy, and while she hadn’t noticed that when she was thirteen and he left home, it is unmistakable from her eighteen year old perspective. Battle loves Nick, but she doesn’t much like him, and much of the book is her trying to balance those competing forces.
The subtitle for The Rules for Hearts is “A Family Drama”, and that does capture the main focus of the book. It is a little disappointing that the romance between Battle and Nic-with-no-k is not continued from the first novel, but it is handled in a very realistic way. They tried long-distance for a time, but they were never that compatible to begin with and work better as friends. I am much older than Battle, but it did make me reflect fondly on loves gone by, the relationships that were never meant to last but shape how a person loves in the future. Nic does not appear in this book, but her shadow is long.
Sara Ryan is talented at making things realistically messy and unsatisfying. Nick is never going to be what Battle wants and needs him to be; the housemate Meryl is never going to give her the happy ending she craves. They, and the rest of the housemates, are all just people, who will make incremental changes throughout their lives but still ultimately be imperfect. I can see how this could be frustrating to a teenage reader looking for answers, but as an adult looking back, I can’t say any of it is incorrect. It just is.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, though I am far, far, far too biased to say if it is a definitively good novel.