Reading the Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman, now with a fourth very much welcome volume, is like falling into an affirming beautiful world in which anything is possible.
It’s not perfect by any measure and Oseman goes to great lengths to be frank and honest about the challenges of love, living and the issues that bedevil us at every turn, especially when we’re younger, but reaching through the Heartstopper books is this beguilingly reassuring sense that things might just turn our okay, after all.
Centred on Nick and Charlie, the former bisexual, the latter gay, two schoolmates in their final years of high school in England, Heartstopper has its focus very much on the joys and travails of young queer love.
While Nick and Charlie are very much the cute, happy couple in Cupid’s spotlight, the series also features lesbian couple Tara and Darcy and young trans woman Elle and her boyfriend Tao, all of whom are in Charlie and now Nick’s friendship and who, together with Aled and some others form the nucleau of a tight, mutually-supportive friendship who live and breathe the gloriously good idea that love is love is love.
In fact, it’s the declaration of this love that sits at the heart of Heartstopper #4.
While Nick and Charlie are as loved up as its possibly to be after the liberating events of volume 3, they have not said those three magic words to each other.
Yes, “I love you” hangs out there just out of reach, or very much within reach with neither Nick nor Charlie wanting to be the one to say it in case the other doesn’t reciprocate.
The thing, they are so damn adorable together, that the idea they wouldn’t feel the same way about each other isn’t even conceivable, but as anyone who has been through that relationship rite of passage knows, it can be fraught with all kind of anxiety and a flurry of heart palpitations.
Oseman explores what this is like for Nick and Charlie with a sweet sincerity and insightful that reflects the series’ gift to date for being real and honest about love.
She takes it a step further this time, however, when Nick begins to suspect Charlie, who has a rocky relationship with his mum Jane (who loves him but isn’t sure how to express it) and a benign one with his dad Julio, might have an eating disorder, a realisation that comes with its own metric ton of “WTF do I do now?” and some instructive lessons of what love is really like down in the gritty trenches of life.
It’s obvious to anyone who has left the sandpit of the under-fives and ventured into the rough and tumble of the schoolyard, and far beyond, that life is not a romantic comedy with perfect rose petal strewn moments and soft gazing into each other’s eyes perpetually on the menu.
Were that was the case but for even the gorgeous coupleness of Nick and Charlie, who say hello with love hearts in the dialogue boxes – a beautiful touch by Oseman whose artwork is as sweetly joyful and endlessly uplifting and warm-huggy as her writing – life has a way of cruelling the romantic mix.
In this case, the record scratching end to idyllic relationship-ing is not a return to school after a ideal summer together, as you might expect, but the emergence of Charlie’s mental health issues.
His eating disorder is a very real thing, as Nick intuited, and it’s accompanied by anxiety and self-harm, to name just two, and as things get worse for Charlie, Nick struggles to know how to respond to the kink in the perfectly smooth arc of love.
Thankfully he has a beautifully, emotionally sensitive mum who helps him to understand that love often takes place in the most brutal and hard of situations, and that sometimes it’s less gooey thoughts and kissing in empty rooms, and more just being there to listen or cooking a meal to cheer your loved one up.
It’s a hard lesson to learn but a valuable one and Oseman delivers it with grace, empathy, a dash of humour and an inclusiveness of understanding that, married with some truly touching artwork, especially in a beachside scene where Nick seeks counsel from his mum and starts to grapple with the fact that love isn’t all roses and chocolates and smoochy moments.
Coming with a sensitive content warning, Heartstopper #4 is that rare and beautiful thing – a snuggly love fest of a story that offers up the delights and promise of love – familial, romantic and friendship focused – while being honest about the fact that love is often a love of hanging in there and doing the hard yards because you love the person you’re with and want them to have the very best of everything even in the worst of times.
It is quite simply an unalloyed joy, and with a Netflix series in the offing based on the series and a promised fifth volume to come, we’ll have plenty of time to spend with Nick and Charlie and their whole beautiful rainbow family of loved-up but life savvy souls.