Los Angeles Review of Books

IN THE OPENING of Juliana Romano’s debut novel, First There Was Forever, Lima and Hailey, best friends since elementary school and now on the verge of 10th grade, are sitting on the beach behind Lima’s Malibu home talking about sex. Hailey has recently lost her virginity to a near stranger and Lima wants to know everything. The late summer sun is shimmering on the Pacific, the waves are nipping at their toes, and Lima, who has “barely ever made out with a boy,” is hungry for one of Hailey’s amazing stories, full of the kind of tiny, electric details shared only with best friends and diaries. But Hailey is removed and seemingly unfazed. “It was whatever,” she reports coolly. And anyway, the only boy she cares about is her long-time crush Nate Reed, whom she’s determined to win over in 10th grade. Lima is unsettled by Hailey’s remove, and as she gazes out at the ocean, she senses that something essential between them has shifted.

And she’s right. When school starts, it becomes clear that Hailey is moving on from this childhood bond. As an adult reader, I wanted to counsel Hailey to keep a friend as loyal, honest, and caring as Lima close to her, but the teenager within me understood her ill-advised break. She’s itching to leave middle school behind, grow up, strike out on her own, and see what else is out there. But how can she negotiate such a leap with a best friend who is content to spend her weekends in her PJs, binging on candy and Netflix? Of course, Hailey is unable to articulate this, and it’s not as if her parents are available to guide her. In fact, her home life is a mess. Her single mother is absent and depressed, and for unexplained reasons, her father’s house in San Diego makes her cry. It’s not hard to imagine Hailey’s pain as she charges full-throttle into adolescence.

Lima’s home, on the other hand, is a haven. Her parents are “basically perfect.” They are hip and nurturing, with family activities that include making jam, gardening, and cooking elaborate meals. And what high school party can compete with Lima’s dreamy, sunshine-flooded Malibu home with its beach access and stunning views, where even “the closets smell like the ocean”? Even if Lima’s home life feels too awesome to be true at times, I found myself relaxing into its overall sense of warmth and safety. Given their different upbringings, it seems inevitable that Hailey will answer the siren call of bad choices and that Lima will not. And sure enough, just days into 10th grade, Hailey ventures into the hard-partying cool crowd and doesn’t invite Lima along.

But Lima is not so easily cast out. Even though Hailey’s push-me pull-me departure leaves Lima disappointed and hurt, it also creates space for Lima to develop new relationships. This is just what happens when the Hayes twins, Meredith and Walker, the “most aloof, most gossiped-about, most mysterious seniors” at their school show up unexpectedly at Lima’s parents’ anniversary party. To Lima’s surprise, the twins not only know her name, but they also see in her the poetry and beauty that she can’t yet recognize in herself. Although Lima (and the reader) never fully gets to know Meredith and Walker, these characters open up a wider world to her. They take her to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Flea Market, Canter’s Deli, and late-night parties that aren’t so much about getting wasted (though there’s plenty of that) but rather are imitations of an adult life that feels free-spirited, artistic, and distinctly LA. One afternoon, Meredith takes Lima to a silent movie at the New Beverly Cinema. This is followed by tacos at the farmers’ market in West Hollywood, where they discuss Meredith’s plans to visit Paris and Istanbul. The first day of spring break is spent lounging at the twins’ unsupervised, clothing-optional pool. Lima, in a borrowed bathing suit, swims until her skin is “rubbery and raisined,” doing her best to avoid looking at the naked and semi-naked bodies around her.

The most surprising aspect of Lima’s new, Hailey-less social life is the chance to interact with Nate, the very boy Hailey has made Lima swear to stay away from. But the refreshingly realistic Nate and Lima can’t fight their magnetic connection. With descriptions that are rich, intimate, and a pure pleasure to read, the two fall in love. Romano never resorts to the contrived Dawson’s Creek-esque dialogue that is so common in YA. Instead she captures the awkwardness of teenagers grappling with feelings for which they have no language yet. In Nate and Lima, young readers will find a relationship that is both deliciously dreamy and achingly real.

While at first glance Hailey appears to be the friend stepping out of her comfort zone and taking risks, it becomes clear that Lima is the one putting herself on the line. Hailey’s crush, after all, is one-sided and within her control. Lima and Nate, on the other hand, reveal themselves to each other with heart-stopping, breath-holding vulnerability. When Lima tells him of her grandmother’s recent death and bursts into unexpected tears, she feels ashamed and says, “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be,” Nate replies, and steps closer. Moments later, when they weave their fingers together, she reflects that the sensation of their hands touching “was so overwhelming my mind kind of went blank.” Lima is haunted by her betrayal of her best friend at almost every turn, because to be with Nate is to lose Hailey forever. But love turns out to be a force as powerful as the Pacific, and Lima must decide if she’s going to dive in or stay on the sand.

Romano chronicles both the undoing of a friendship and the blossoming of first love at a pace slow enough to allow the reader to absorb each perfectly aimed barb and savor every secret kiss. The short, well-drawn chapters and escalating conflict, however, keep the pages turning. The result is a book that’s similar to a ride along the Santa Monica bike path. You could race the whole way without stopping, but it’s better to cruise, take in the view, and enjoy the full experience.

Romano is a painter, and her visual skill is at work here. Her descriptions bring Southern California vividly to life. One can hear the roaring sea, feel the cold, damp sand underfoot, and picture the brilliant sun filtered through jacaranda trees. At night, Lima observes that the ocean “looked like a black desert.” At the Santa Monica Pier, the air coming off the water is “thick with minerals.” The sky is described as “flat white” and “dirty sponge” gray and “post-rain, shiny blue.” Through Lima’s keen perspective, readers are transported from lush Malibu to leafy Laurel Canyon to industrial West LA with arresting and evocative detail.

Romano takes a few shortcuts, however. Hailey’s cool new friends are so arch and one-dimensional that they feel straight out of central casting. And while Lima tells us that Hailey is “the deepest, kindest, more interesting person” she knows and an “amazing storyteller,” the reader never glimpses these qualities. At other times, Lima feels a little too naive. She is told from a young age that she is the most beautiful girl in school, and yet the hyper-observant and thoughtful Lima remains oddly clueless about this, despite being immersed in a culture obsessed with physical beauty. By skirting the issue, Romano cheats herself of an opportunity to make Lima more complex.

But readers will not be distracted by these small flaws. Instead they will be swept away to the California coast. They will root for Lima as she experiences the heartbreak of lost friendship and the delirious brightness of first love. Most of all, they will relate to Lima’s transformation as she crosses an invisible boundary from childhood to young adulthood.

At the beginning of the book, Lima confesses that she didn’t actually set foot in the ocean until she was 12, despite it being right outside her back door. She was terrified that it would pull her under and never let her go. But Hailey encouraged her, and when at last Lima dove into the water, she realized that what she had been so afraid of was not so terrible. It was just a new place to be. In fact, it was wonderful. “I’m still me,” she observed. “I’m just in the ocean.”

¤

Leila Howland is the author of Nantucket Blue and Nantucket Red, novels for young adults, as well as the middle-grade novel The Forget-Me-Not Summer.

Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly round-up of reviews, essays, & interviews.

Not a member? LARB is reader supported. Join today and get LARB in print.