Of course, both of these books were released several years ago. Paper Towns was published just as the economy was crashing, but reflected the Orlando of the early 2000s, a city becoming a megalopolis, suffocated by new suburban developments and big-box town centers, orange groves and ranches lost to construction. And Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia emerged at the end of the housing collapse, its tone burdened by weariness and pessimism at a world foreclosed upon, and promises that had collapsed on themselves.
Lauren Gibaldi’s just-released The Night We Said Yes (2015), though, shows us Orlando at a very different time, even though just six years separate this book from Green’s. The teenagers are the same, of course, because…well, teenagers will never truly be satisfied with the city into which they were born, not until they move away. Take, for instance, this early scene in the novel, as narrator El attends her graduation ceremony at the University of Central Florida, Orlando’s city-sized institution of higher learning:
As we approach the University of Central Florida, the streets get louder, more crowded. Cars honk, voices yell. College students aching to stretch their legs—and livers—are out in full swing. Meg loves this. I…used to.
We were here just a week earlier for graduation. Our senior class was so large that the ceremony had to be hosted at the university’s basketball arena. As we sat waiting for our names to be called, many of my classmates, Meg included, looked around, taking in their future campus. I, on the other hand, had nothing to get attached to; I’m moving four hours north to attend Florida State University. I need to get away and try something new. You can only be hurt in a town so many times before giving up on it. (2)
There are several things of note in this description: we get the same teenage disaffection from Paper Towns and Death, Dickinson…, that sighing been-there-done-that-over-this attitude. El is “moving four hours north to attend Florida State,” needs to “get away and try something new,” is “giving up on [Orlando]”. And “Meg loves this. I…used to.” That’s a lot of disappointment packed into so few sentences.
But, on the other hand, I’d argue that this passage, found on just the second page of the book, showcases a brand-new characterization of the city of Orlando, and actually signals a changing perception of the area, both locally and nationally. Take, for instance, the descriptions of UCF, which are important not for what they show (“louder,” “crowded,” “voices yell,” “livers”), but for what they don’t show. There is an assumption from the author that “University of Central Florida” is a recognizable enough brand to justify such a sparing description; it’s a gigantic state university as respected by high schoolers as Florida State, which (here, and elsewhere throughout the book) never receives more high-school adulation than UCF. This is a characterization that would’ve seemed odd just twenty years ago, as UCF was still struggling to carve out an identity. When I graduated high school in ’98 and chose UCF over the University of Florida, where I’d also been accepted and had the same scholarship opportunities, one of my best friends looked at me blankly and just said, “Why, Nathan?” The school had no reputation, even in the state of Florida, as trying to convince the world to call it “UCF” and not “Central Florida.” Now, though, millions will have seen the UCF Knights win the Fiesta Bowl (2013-14 football season), and millions more will know that the school has one of the largest student populations in the country (second-largest, to be exact). It isn’t as household a name as Ohio State or UCLA, but—like a Darden restaurant—we kind of know the menu just by hearing the name. Had the university been mentioned in Green’s Paper Towns in 2009, by contrast, too-cool-for-school Margo would’ve said something similar to what I heard from my high school friend: “That directional school at the other end of the county? Why would anyone go to there?”
Though Gibaldi’s novel is concerned with the anxiety that teenagers experience when graduating high school and deciding upon their future homes, it isn’t nearly as dark as either of the other YA novels we’ve explored. The title alone gives us a sense of hopefulness, as does the cover image of four teenagers foregrounding a sunrise. There is indeed conflict, of course, because there’d be no story without it, but the book is focused upon overcoming fears, overcoming negativity. In particular, the book uses a “then and now” structure to contrast two important night for its narrator, El. The first (“now,” the present) shows us the post-graduation reunion of El and her old boyfriend, Matt, who’d unexpectedly moved to Texas but has now returned to attend UCF. The second (“then,” one year ago) shows us the origin of that relationship between El and Matt (who at the time was a newcomer in town). Both characters are insecure, especially when compared to their vocal (and volatile?) friends Jake and Meg. In the present-tense narrative, all four are attempting to repair fractured relationships and recapture a happiness that seemed so vibrant a year prior. In the retrospective narrative, we see all four agree to a single night in which they’ll say “yes” to everything, from climbing up to their school’s roof, to skinny-dipping, to karaoke.
The very nature of this premise and these characters (three Orlandoans, and one newcomer) lends itself to extended conversations about the city, and to occasional moments in the narrative that feel like tours:
“I…guess you’re stuck with me?” [Matt] asked. I looked back at him, knowing I was okay with that.
“So how do you like Orlando?” I asked. There were tons of things I wanted to know, but it was the first question that popped in my head.
“It’s okay. I’ve only been here for about a month. I don’t know much about it yet, really.”
“We’ll have to take you out, then,” I answered, carefully using the plural so it would seem casual. (38)
Consider this for a moment: our narrator’s lack of snark, her investment in the city, her willingness—no, desire—to show someone around (“We’ll have to take you out, then”). This is a far cry from VICE’s “Big Night Out,” a far cry from Frenchie Garcia calling her state a “crematorium,” her city a “fish bowl,” a far cry from John Green’s “desperately lame” characterization.
As we progress through these two nights, past and present, we’re introduced to a number of fictitious locales that might or might not be stand-ins for real businesses. The first is Wing King:
Wing King is all dark wood and bright lights. Booths and picnic tables give the place a southern backyard barbecue feel. Old tin signs hang on the walls, advertising oil, milk, and pig feed. It’s not the nicest of places, but at one time it was ours.
“Two, please,” he says to the hostess.
It was presumptuous of him to bring me here since the place holds so many memories for us; I can practically breathe them in. The waiters and waitresses saw every phase of our relationship, from early flirtations to final conversations. I pick at my nails as I follow him to a table—to our table, the secluded booth in the corner where we used to plan epic nights full of adventure and excitement. (47-48)
Despite the sad longing for distant memories that El can “practically breathe…in,” the description is crafted in a way that allows Wing King to feel rich with personality. This is not some dumpy restaurant to be made fun of. If it has flaws, those flaws are excused as character. Later in the book, we visit One Stop Records:
“Hey guys. So, here’s the deal. A bunch of people went over to One Spin after the party broke up, just to hang out.” One Spin Records was the only remaining local indie record shop. It still sold CDs and records, as well as books and DVDs. To make up the money they lost after iPods became cool, the manager built a stage in the back for local bands to utilize, and for touring bands to host secret shows. He also had a small recording studio put in that most local bands took advantage of. It was significantly cheaper than most other places, and added a neat authentic (as in, kind of tinny) sound to the recordings. (180)
In another narrative, one published ten years prior, the narrator might scoff at this “desperate” indie record shop, barely holding on in the face of the digital revolution. But here, poor recording quality is described as “neat” and “authentic,” and One Spin Records feels innovative and fun in the same ways as our city’s most celebrated shops, bars, and eateries.
Throughout the book, Gibaldi uses tried and true Orlando details, too: El mentions that the only musicians who make it from this city are “boy bands,” and (as with any book that takes place in Florida) we see the bipolar “Florida weather,” how clear skies can turn to downpours instantly. But the book’s depiction of Orlando is most significant for that tone of fascination and (dare I say) ownership. While the book’s title refers to the literal “night of saying yes” and the metaphoric assertion of identity that this implies for the story’s protagonist (choosing to say yes, to become more adventurous, to commit to relationships), The Night We Said Yes also echoes El’s and Matt’s decision to embrace the city itself. Here’s Matt, on why he chose UCF:
“Why UCF? Really this time.” It’s what I need to know. What I’ve been waiting to ask. What I’ve been to scared to ask. Was it for me?
“I was offered a scholarship,” he says, pushing his hair back and looking away. My heart drops, but I don’t take my eyes off him. “Good school and all.” He thinks, and then looks back at me. My breath catches as our eyes meet. “This was the only place that’s ever felt like home. I want to come back. I wanted to feel what I did when I lived here. I know you can’t go abck to a time as easily as you can go back to a place, but I wanted to try. I like it here.” (108-109)
“I like it here,” Matt says, something that Margo and Q never said in Paper Towns. And then there’s this:
I smiled and hoped, truly hoped, that Orlando might be the home he was looking for. (167)
Much of the joy that the characters are expressing for the city, admittedly, is a result of the joy they are expressing for one another’s company:
“You moved back here for me?” I ask, face so close.
He blushes slightly, but doesn’t pull away. “Of course. I didn’t lie earlier—the school here is good…but…I’ve spent my life on the road, trying to find home, when really, you were always home to me.” (284)
But still, this is a different story for the city of Orlando than anything we’ve read previously. Suddenly, it’s not a place to be escaped. It’s not a place that drains the soul. Suddenly, in Gibaldi’s book, here in the middle of the 2010s, Orlando is a place that allows growth rather than stymies it, that inspires rather than depresses. It’s not just a flimsy persona, a “paper town,” but instead a place of affirmation and positivity, a place that gives rise to its characters’ most fearless and creative moments:
And then I looked at him. His eyes were shining, daring me. Full of light and hope and everything I wanted in life. He believed in me, he actually believed in me. I didn’t have to plan this, prepare for this; it was actually here. Why shouldn’t I believe in myself? Why should I be afraid? (242)
In 2015, to show Orlando in a literary work is not to show shame, not to ridicule, but to show confidence in identity.
In the end, what can we learn from these works of young adult fiction? As Orlandoans, do we need to identify with or agree with one characterization over another? Will Gibaldi’s final positive characterization stick, serving as the model for future books and movies?
The answer to that final question, hopefully, is no.
In each of the three books, we’ve seen how an author’s characterization of the city is alive with the spirit of its time; none is truly “right” or “wrong,” but instead illuminates a particular point-of-view in a particular place at a particular time. I find it encouraging that there is now a real body of literary work that treats Orlando with seriousness, that we’ve risen above stock footage and bloggy insults. But the next works of “Orlando fiction” must move beyond what these authors have written, or the conversation will stall, and we’ll find ourselves living through cliché and stereotype again. Consider the New York depicted in the ten thousand seasons of Law & Order, how it tends to look the same from one year to the next, how the same tropes are used again and again, how even the actors are occasionally recycled into new roles. By the end, the show’s setting seems more influenced by previous seasons of the show than by New York itself. Compare that with The Wire, and how each season showed not just the history and mythology of some neighborhood or industry or institution of Baltimore, but also the forces of change at work in constantly shaping the city’s character. One of my favorite scenes in The Wire, in fact, came at the start of the third season, as we watched (alongside teenage drug dealers Bodie and Poot) a demolition team bring down the high-rise condos. In that moment, we knew that the city, and the drug trade, and the police strategy, and the real estate landscape, and the lives of hundreds of families and friends who’d understood that high-rise as their entire world, had changed irrevocably.
So, more than anything, these books—and the shifts and changes in the city’s characterization—make me excited to see where we go next. When someone writes about the city of today, Orlando in 2015, what will they say? How will we be defined? Who best to tell the story? A Puerto Rican teenager in Union Park? A twenty-something hipster in Audobon Park? A sixty-year-old church-goer in College Park? A middle-class mother in Avalon Park? Will we best be seen through the lens of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, a modern-day Alas, Babylon? Will our city and our time best be understood through the genre of a horror movie, a superhero story, a work of dark literary fiction, a piece of seminal sports writing? Much like the protagonists of these three books we’ve examined, the conversation itself is young, full of promise, full of possibility.
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Nathan Holic is an Orlando-based writer. His books include The Things I don't See and American Fraternity Man. He is also the editor of the 15 Views of Orlando anthologies and the graphic narrative editor at The Florida Review literary journal.