Dec 17, 2010

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Today I’m participating in Kelly and Marg’s fifth annual Virtual Advent Blog Tour, which has bloggers from all around the world posting about the holidays and how they celebrate them. My friend Chris from Stuff as Dreams are Made Of is also a tour stop for today, so we decided to review Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan together by coming up with six questions about the book that we’d each answer on our blog.

But first, a little bit about the book: The latest offering by the authors of the wonderful Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and the even more wonderful Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List is a Christmas story set in New York. Dash and Lily are two teenagers who are alone for the holidays: Dash by choice (he doesn’t feel like dealing with his family, so he tells his mother he’s going to his father’s for Christmas, and his father the reverse. The fact that this works speaks volumes about his family’s dynamics); Lily because are parents took off to the Fiji Islands to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

They meet because, at her older brother Langston’s advice, Lily places a red Moleskine notebook among J.D. Salinger’s books at The Strand, the famous New York bookshop. The notebook contains a series of clues that Dash, who happens to be its finder, has to follow. Dash and Lily begin to exchange dares through the red Moleskine, and in the process they begin to get to know each other. But is the person hiding behind the pages the same person each of them has imagined?

Me: Did you have a favourite narrator? If so, why?
This is a difficult question, actually, because I really liked them both. But I think I warmed up to Lily quicker, if only because I could relate to her more. As she eventually acknowledges herself, she lives in permanent fear of getting hurt and being rejected if she allows others to get close to her. She inhabits a sort of cocoon she has made for herself (and which, in many ways, has also been made for her) that mainly consist of her family, of dog-walking, and of carol-singing. But even though she enjoys the safety of her little world, she knows she won’t truly be happy unless she gets herself out there and begins to take some risks.

I also loved her sense of humour – she never loses her ability to laugh at herself, not even when things go wrong. And I loved the fact that she was slightly eccentric but not twee; overprotected but not spoiled; sensitive but not overdramatic. As I was saying, though, I really loved both Lily and Dash, and that’s a huge part of what made the book for me. In some ways, what we have in Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares is an old story: a snarky, reserved boy is dragged out of his shell by a joyful, bouncy, outgoing girl. But that’s only what this book is about on a very surface level. As I was saying, Lily inhabits a shell of her own. There’s a lot more to her – and to Dash – than meets the eye at first, and as such there’s a lot more to the book. Both protagonists almost start out as character types, but by the end they have become human beings – both to the reader and to each other.

Chris: What did you think of the journal as a means of communication between Dash and Lily? Obviously it was central to the plot, but for them getting to know one another?
As someone who almost has a PhD in Getting to Know People Over the Internet at this point, I give the notebook two thumbs up. Over the course of the story, both Dash and Lily worry about whether the person they have imagined the other to be will correspond to reality (more on that when I answer the next question), but I think the authors make it very clear that this is a limitation of human interaction in general, rather than of the written medium.

We all have a tendency to project our ideals on those we’re getting to know, especially when a romantic interest is involved – and it always takes a real effort to see and accept the actual human being in front of us. This would have happened to Dash and Lily even if their first meeting had been face-to-face. What the notebook allowed them to do was be more open more quickly than they would probably have been otherwise. This has both positives and negative sides, one could argue, but to me it worked very well indeed.

Me: Without giving too much away, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares does *not* play out like the traditional heart-warming romance you might expect at first. What do you think Cohn and Levithan were going for when they made the protagonists’ first meeting so different from anything readers might have imagined?
I think this has to do with the whole theme of expectations versus real human beings I alluded to in my previous answer. I don’t want to give away what that first face-to-face meeting is like, but suffice to say it’s unlike anything either of them could have imagined. And as I said before, this causes them to wonder whether the person they thought they were falling in love with only ever really existed in their heads.

I love that Cohn and Levithan made this an explicit theme of the novel, because I really believe this is a process that takes place in most, if not all, relationship. We all regularly run the risk of dehumanising those we love by projecting too much on them, even if that “too much” is made of nothing but good things. Dash and Lily have to find a balance somewhere in there – and I found this process a lot more real and more interesting than a straightforward or uncomplicated love story could have been. Before you get the wrong idea, though, let me clarify that none of this means the novel isn’t full of “awww” moments, or isn’t romantic in the best possible sense of the term.

Chris: Did you have a favorite secondary character?
How can I pick just one? I really liked Lily’s brother Langston, even though he doesn’t do much more than a) give her the idea for the notebook and b) be conveniently sick and therefore out of the way for most of the story. But he was responsible for my very favourite scene in the whole book:
“Are you over him?” I asked.
We both knew the him I referred to was not Benny, but the him who broke Langston’s heart so devastatingly. Langston’s first love.
“In some ways, I think I’ll never be over him,” Langston said.
“That is such an unsatisfying answer.”
“That’s because you’re interpreting it in the wrong way. I don’t mean it as a wistful, overdramatic declaration. I mean that the love I felt for him was huge and real, and, while painful, it forever changed me as a person, in the same way that being your brother reflects and changes how I evolve, and vice versa. The important people in our lives leave imprints. They may stay or go in the physical realm, but they are always there in your heart, because they helped form your heart. There’s no getting over that.
How lovely is that? Can we swap older brothers, Lily? (Just kidding! Mostly.)

Me: I don't know about you, but I know I'm going to have a hard time writing about this book without using the phrase “perfect Christmas story”, no matter how clichéd that sounds. What do you think (other than the fact that it’s set around Christmas and New Year’s) makes this such a great holidays read?
I was going to say it’s the fact that it’s set in New York, and the thing is, I’d only be half-kidding. I don’t know why, but visiting NYC around Christmastime is a huge dream of mine. This is undoubtedly inspired by all those Hollywood movies I was exposed to as a child, but I just don’t care.

Seriously now, I love that Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares captures the real warmth behind the holiday season. I am, like Lily, one of those people who really love Christmas. I respect those who don’t like it; I think there are plenty of valid reasons not to like it, and I even share some of those. But, as Amy said so well the other day (or as this song also says so well), most of us could do with a yearly reminder to connect to one another, to be warm, to be kind. At Christmas that reminder is often expressed in Hallmark clichés and comes covered in glitter, but again, I don’t much care. There’s something behind it all that I truly appreciate, and this story, which is above all a story about human connections, captures it perfectly

Chris: Share a favorite passage from the moleskine.
This is one of Lily’s bits – it’s an extract from a longer passage that includes references to the wonderful Franny and Zooey:
What I want for Christmas is to believe.
I want to believe that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there is reason to hope. I write this while a homeless man is sleeping on the ground under a dirty blanket a few feet away from the bench where I’m sitting at the Astor Place subway stop, on the uptown side, where I can see across the tracks to the Kmart entrance on the downtown side. Is this relevant? Not really, except that when I started to write this to you, I noticed him, then stopped writing long enough to go dash over to the Kmart to buy the man a bag of “fun size” Snickers bars, which I slipped underneath his blanket, and that makes me extra sad because his does are all worn out and he’s dirty and smelly and I don’t think that bag of Snickers is going to make much difference to this guy, ultimately. His problems are way bigger than a bag of Snickers can resolve. I don’t understand how to process this stuff sometimes. Like, here in New York, we see so much grandeur and glitz, especially this time of year, and yet we see so much suffering, too. Everyone else on the platform here is just ignoring this guy, like he doesn’t exist, and I don’t know how that’s possible. I want to believe it’s not crazy of me to hope he will wake up and a social worker will take him to a shelter for a warm shower, meal, and bed, and the social worker will then help him find a job and an apartment and… See? It’s just too much to process. All this hoping for something—or someone—that’s maybe hopeless.
I’m having a hard time processing what I am supposed to believe, or if I’m even supposed to. There is too much information, and I don’t like a lot of it.
And yet, for some reason that all scientific evidence really should make impossible, I feel like I really do hope. I hope that global warming will go away. I hope that people won’t be homeless. I hope that suffering will not exist. I want to believe that my hope is not in vain.
I love how Lily allows herself to be honest and open and vulnerable here. I love how she’s kind, but is never self-righteous about it in a Look at Me, I Did Good kind of way. What she did was about simple human contact, which she herself craves; about loneliness; about making things better for one another in the ways we can. And no, this isn’t something that should only happen at Christmas, but one yearly reminder, one occasional moment of hope, is certainly better than none.

Don’t forget to visit today’s other tour stops! Other than Chris and I, there’s also Boof at The Book Whisperer and Marg at Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.

And in case you’re curious, here are my advent posts from previous years: Christmas miscellany (with songs and recipes!), a Portuguese Christmas recipe, and Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Book Bloggers Advent Tour 2010


  1. I love that quote by Lily about the homeless man and the Snickers. It does seem so hopeless sometimes, and yet she still chooses to believe.

  2. Jill, exactly! I found it all the more touching because her hope and her love for the season are not the result of naiveté, but of wanting to see the best in people and things despite being well aware of how hard it can be.

  3. Wow, I'd like to get this book someday. Next Christmas, probably :)

  4. Ana, how funny - I am reading this book right now! I really like Dash so far, dunno why but I warmed to him more than Lily. Haven't finished it yet though.

  5. This sounds like a really interesting premise for a book, and I enjoyed your question and answer session on it. Gah! I should have picked this for my holiday read, but until now I had no idea that it even existed!! Thanks for this awesome post, Ana. It's going on the list for next year!

  6. I was just over at the Book Whisperer telling her how great it is to see the different ways people participate in the Advent Tour (I'm on the 22nd and will probably talk about bacalhau, no recipe, just what it means to us :))

    Thanks for the link to the other years, I might just try your version of Arroz Doce this Xmas. When are you going back? I have my fingers crossed for a smooth flight on the 22nd!! Because of the snow, last year I went to Lisbon via Frankfurt-Geneve-Porto :S

  7. I've never heard of this books before but it sounds lovely and also very different:)

  8. New York at Christmas time - i share your dream and I almost made it this year. Never mind, maybe next year.

    This book sounds adorable, I like the way they don't meet at first and I don't think I have ever considered the expectations people have of the people they only know by the written word.

  9. That's a very interesting premise!

  10. I think my DH and I are going to read this book aloud to each other over the holidays. Sounds like so much fun!

  11. This book seems to be everywhere just now! :) I love the quotes & your wonderful review totally sold the book to me.


  12. This is the first I've heard of this novel and I'm totally going to track it down to read in the next week. Thank you.

  13. Lightheaded, I have very little doubt you'll enjoy it!

    Book: I can't wait to hear what you think! Dash *is* awesome as well, so I understand liking him more :P

    Zibilee: There's always next Christmas! I'm glad you enjoyed your Q&As :)

    Alex: I arrived this morning! I made it out before the snow began, fortunately :P I hope your own trip goes well. My brother is only coming on the 23rd and I kind of worry for him, what with the weather forecast. Also, I'm very much looking to your post on bacalhau, hehe. That's what people tend to find the most bizarre about our Christmas traditions - "What? You have fish for Christmas?!" :P

    Sakura: It was lovely! I actually read it during my London weekend, and the fact that I managed to read the whole thing then says a lot :P

    Vivienne: Aw, I hope you do make it next year!

    Chris: Isn't it? And I love how they developed it.

    LietimeReader: Sounds perfect! Enjoy :D

    Tiina and sprite: Enjoy!

  14. geez Ana... you and Chris are about to drive me insane to add another book to the wish list!

    this isn't fair! lol.. I hope one of the kitties snubs you LOL (just kidding)

  15. Deslily: Ha - too late ;) Even the one who normally sulks at me was all purry this time around :D Anyway, enjoy the book!

  16. This was such a fun book, though I admit I liked Dash a whole lot more than Lily. Even though I love Christmas a lot more than he does. :D

  17. This reminded me of the fabulous (and highly favored)film "Amelie," and I stopped reading your review almost immediately, so that the book would be all new to me. But I love your reviews, so once I read this, I'll be back!

  18. This looks charming, especially now that I am in New York and I can go to all the places they go! :p I was actually just at the Strand today buying awesome presents for my sister. :D It will be so brilliant when you someday come for Christmas! We can go see all the nice Christmas things and buy books at the Strand.

  19. The more I hear about this book, the more I get interested in it. Thanks for sharing some excerpts ... that did it for me. Onto the wish list it goes!

    And I loved the interview format.

  20. I just posted about this book yesterday! Seems to be the season :-) I'm loving reading everyone else's takes, and I really like how you guys swapped questions.

    I definitely preferred witty, articulate Dash, while Lily annoyed me just a little. I loved the notebook back-and-forth, though I never 100% believed Dash and Lily felt like they worked together, as anything. That didn't stop me from enjoying the story, though!

    As for favorite secondary characters, I love that part with Langston! Though he was absent for so much of the novel that I have to say Ida and/or Boomer. The novel definitely had some good secondary characters!

  21. I had no idea this book had anything to do with Christmas. Now I must read it, and sooner than I thought!

  22. Oh Ana, I loved so much of what you had to say in here!! Just so perfect. And you know, Langston was a very close second character for me...I loved that quote too. And that quote you picked from the journal...I almost picked that one too :)

  23. Wow! I don't usually like pure romances. They have to be historical and they can't be the entire point of the book.

    However, the premise of this one is so different that I am interested in reading it. What am I to do?

  24. I'm so loving the sound of this book after reading your great post and the added bonus is that I will be picking it up today from my library because it's been on-hold just waiting for me!! Yay!!

  25. On the one hand this book doesn't sound like my kind of thing at all but the premise and the fact that you and Chris find it to be the perfect Christmas story makes me want to read it -- even though I don't really read Christmas books.

  26. ok, ok.. so it went on my wish list... are you happy now? lol lol

  27. As I was just telling Chris at his site, this one is one of my favourite reads of the year, and certainly the most fun!

  28. I've been looking forward to reading this one since I read Darren's review @ Bart's Bookshelf. Thanks for maintaining my enthusiasm. This will be a must-read during my holiday!

  29. I really look forward to reading this book after reading so many great reviews on it! Love the format, Ana! :)

  30. Beneficial info and excellent design you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and putting the time into the stuff you publish! Great work!

  31. You've no idea how badly I want to read this...but since I'm in the middle of this book, I'm going to make myself wait. So far--I am in love. :D

  32. Thanks for joining in again, Ana! I want to read this book, but I have to deal with a mess at the library before I look and see if they have it!

  33. Dare I say that this would make a GREAT movie?

  34. Something about the cover on this book really draws me in.

    Hope your holidays are perfect!

  35. I just read this one and I loved it too. It really was a sweet story, but not sacchrine. A good break from the normal Christmas fluff.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.