Is Christmas a romantic time of year?
That depends very much on who you ask but it is true, at least for the most part for Lily and Dash, two quite different young people who, after a red Moleskine book full of dares sends them running all New York and, rather wonderfully, into each other’s hearts, decide that being together is a whole more lovely than being apart.
Their initial whirlwind coming together is told in Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, now adapted by Netflix as Dash & Lily, and it is one of those wholly wonderful stories that proves that even the very best of fairytale endings requires a whole lot of navigating your inner demons, red gumboots and difficult dads.
In other words, Dash & Lily inhabit a Christmas-initiated and inspired world of romantic wonder but it isn’t just handed to them on a plate and even Lily, who is ever the romantic, whether at Christmas or any other of the year (but especially at at the most wonderful time of the year), has to admit it has to be fought for.
So, it makes sense that in The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily, which takes place, as the title doesn’t just suggest but shouts from the rooftops, upon which Santa’s sleigh and eight reindeer happily, if temporarily nestle, at Christmas, we find the world’s happiest couple feeling not quite so happy.
“It used to be that the Christmas season would shrink my heart to the size and substance of a gift card. I hated the way the streets would clog with a thrombosis of tourists, and how the normal thrum of the city would be drowned out by tinny cliché sentiments. Most people counted down the days till Christmas in order to get Christmas with, and for the bleaker, more genuine winter to begin.
There’d been no room in my toy-soldier heart for Lily, but she’d forced herself in anyway. And she’d brought Christmas with her.” (P. 6)
It makes sense – happy ever afters can’t last forever in the real world. (It would nice if they did but well, you know, LIFE.)
After falling in love in New York’s iconic Strand bookstore, where suddenly Lily’s joyously upbeat approach to everything and Dash’s darker of the world around him seemed in weird but perfect sync, Dash and Lily have found themselves not quite marching in unison.
Lily has been dealing with a lot, most especially her beloved grandfather’s ill health stemming from a debilitating heart attack, which has required lots of TLC from his favourite granddaughter, a selfless act freely given which has left her feeling depleted and less excited about life, a development which unnerves because if there is one thing Lily is, it is totally, absolutely, happily, joyously, giddily into life.
And now she isn’t, and with twelve days left until Christmas, traditionally the time of year when Lily is picking out a magnificent tree, organising a tree lighting ceremony and wandering the Christmas stalls of New York, everyone’s elf of choice, the engine of festive cheer, isn’t feeling it, and nor, worryingly, is anyone else.
Cue Operation Lily Rediscovers Christmas – not the actual title of the operation but it’s essentially what the intent of the bauble-strung mission is – where Dash, Lily’s brother Langston, his boyfriend, and a host of family and friends including sweet Boomer and caring Sofia do their best to get Lily smiling again.
Mirroring a little of the scavenger hunt joie de vivre of the first book, and told in alternating chapters from Dash and then Lily and so on’s perspectives, The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily is a supreme joy to read.
Not necessarily because it happens at Christmas although that is rather central to the narrative, with Cohn and Levithan evoking the snow-covered, light-filled brilliance of New York in the holidays, but because we see Dash & Lily at their most desperate, their love still very much there but hidden and lost, buried by life’s endless capacity to subvert wonder and joy with angst and pain.
What makes this Christmas romance such a delight is how grounded and real Cohn and Levithan make it feel.
The ending, when it comes, feels very much earned by the two central characters who discover that while the initial falling in love, especially at Christmas, is the stuff of which romantic perfection is made, you can never coast by on what you started with.
Were that you could, but life is never that forgiving and when you’re dealing with a lot of issues, and you’re just seventeen, it is easy to lose sight of what really makes you happy.
It’s also easy for your inner demon to insist on wrestling with you hen you’re trying to figure what you’re feeling, what your beloved is feeling, and if there is anything of meeting in the middle, chestnuts roasting over an open fire or not.
“Yesterday, arguably the best day of my life not including any Star Wars movie opening days, Dash and I had declared our love for each other. When Dash took me home last night, we cuddled by the fire, gazing at our beautiful tree-baby, Oscar. I told him how much I loved him. ‘I love your obscure books and moody music and even your terrible cookies. I love your kindness. I love you for loving Christmas, despite yourself. For me.'” (P. 149)
The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily succeeds with exuberant groundedness because the two authors know that every fairytale has its fair share of trials and challenges, even after the romantic deal is seemingly done, and getting to the finish line isn’t as simple as donning a Santa hat and snuggling into the one you love, eggnog in hand.
Helping the engaging storytelling along too is the vibrancy of the two characters; a great deal of care and attention has been paid to Dash and Lily who come live in ways so deliciously leap-off-the-page-ish that you honestly feel as if you know these two people intimately.
That’s surely the goal of every book, to feel as if you and the protagonist/s are in some sort of secret, cosy embrace, even if it’s bad one, but it is alive in so many visceral ways in The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily that the idea that they are fictional and not glorying in the festive magic of New York at Christmas is almost impossible to consider.
Cohn and Levithan have seamlessly merged twinkling romance and gritty reality in a novel which still keeps the flame of festive love alive, in all its sparkling wonder, but which recognises that stoking the flame takes a lot of work, especially when life is going out of its way to snuff it out, and that if you’re going to make it to another Christmas in each other’s arms, you’re going to have to work hard and not take anything, even Christmas in all its glorious loveliness, for granted.