Lang Leav’s debut novel has all the right ingredients but the wrong method in dishing out a good read.

WHEN I was going through the throes of heartbreak, I found myself clutching Lang Leav’s Memories. “It was words that I fell for. In the end, it was words that broke my heart.” Her short compact verses packed an emotional punch and her poetry allowed me to wallow in my grief and despair. Forget sad songs and chick flicks; Leav’s poetry helped me navigate through dark times, along with copious amounts of chocolate. Angst-filled, plaintive and not too deep, Leav’s poems are catchy, simple and relatable. It doesn’t beg for you to think deep. All it asks is for you to feel.

The bestselling contemporary poet, synonymous with the “Instapoet” tag bestowed on the new wave of tech-savvy poets who use the social media platform (Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter) to reach the mostly digitally-wired millennials and teens, has a repertoire of four bestselling collections of poetry — Love And Misadventures, Lullabies, Memories and The Universe Of Us.

The New York Times recently reported that three of the top 10 current bestselling poetry books in the US have been penned by poets at the forefront of the “Instapoet” movement. Leav, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, grew up in Australia and now lives in New Zealand, is one of them; as with the other two popular Instapoets, Rupi Kaur and Tyler Knott Gregson. All of them wear their hearts on their sleeves and write lyrically on themes of love, loss and loneliness.

While critics have argued that Leav’s style of angsty heartbreak poetry and outpouring of emotions is pretentious, kitschy and devoid of poetic integrity, others are quick to say that it’s Instapoets like Leav who have made the art of poetry accessible to the masses. “I think it’s great if people are enjoying poetry through social media but the next step would be to read more poetry and understand what else is out there. Contemporary poets, offline, are incredibly vibrant — it’s just directing people into that world,” says Rishi Dastidar, assistant editor of poetry magazine, the Rialto, in an interview with the Guardian.

Despite the critiques, Leav’s poems have gained her a massive fan base and awards, including the Qantas Spirit of Youth Award, Churchill Fellowship and the 2014 Goodreads Choice award for poetry. I, for one, count among the many who enjoy her verses and can relate to them. Heartbreak, after all, is universal; so is love, sadness and despair — all of which feature in her short evocative verses.

Riding on the wave of her success, Leav debuted her first novel, Sad Girls, last year. Catching sight of her book displayed at my local bookstore had me wondering if Leav would be able to replicate her success in a different genre. Shouldn’t be difficult,’ I remember thinking, given her way with words and her innate ability to hit the emotional juggernaut with her poems.


Was I right? Not quite, much to my dismay.

Her story begins with a lie being told. In a moment of impulse, Audrey tells her best friends a lie. A lie she thought was safe, until it slipped through the sworn secrecies between best friends into someone else’s ear. It’s a lie that results in the death of another girl, Ana. Knee deep into therapy and swimming in guilt, Audrey meets Ana’s boyfriend Rad and falls in love with him.

It could have been an interesting proposition: The protagonist (Audrey) lied which resulted in an unnecessary death. You’d think that there’d be a come-uppance of sorts for Audrey. But no. Forget a guilt-addled Audrey desperately trying to come to terms with the devastating repercussions of a single lie. Forget soul-searching, tears and attempts at redemption. Forget the fact that the lie she told crumbled a family unit irretrievably. She covers up her lie, and barring a couple of unconvincing minor breakdowns, she goes on to lead a charmed life, therapy notwithstanding. An exciting job offer, promotions and a new romance beckons for Audrey.

Leav writes her story with the same glossy approach. The emotions throughout the story are only surface-deep. There’s nothing much beneath it. You get a pretty unlikeable protagonist who leapfrogs from one love interest to another. Never mind that there’s no actual lesson learnt from the devastating consequence of her lie — only a couple of anxiety attacks thrown in to defer to the despicable act she committed.

Instapoet Lang Leav (centre) has developed a huge following in recent years.

Then there are those other characters hovering on the periphery with their own stories that should have been fleshed out better. Love interest Rad writes a best-selling novella but is haunted by his own devastating secret. It’s a secret that’s worse than Audrey’s lie (which seems to imply that it’s okay to get away with one bad deed as long as there’s a worse one to eclipse it).

Then there’s Candela, one of Audrey’s best friends, whose relationship with the dead Ana is never explained. Devastated by Ana’s death, she drops out of school and turns to drugs. “Duck”, her first boyfriend, purely exists to provide a contrast to the protagonist, and isn’t explored other than to be jealous of Rad. He cuts himself, goes on an emotional rampage when Audrey breaks up with him and then miraculously returns to normal as soon as he finds himself another girlfriend.

Leav’s plot has got more holes than a giant slab of Swiss cheese. And then there are the characters: People you wish would’ve “offed” themselves instead of tormenting us with their angst and whiny complaints despite being given a great shot at life. And of course, there’s that whole business of the lie. Audrey never really does own up or take responsibility for what she did. She never really does think about how her lie tore apart a family, ruined a man’s reputation or how the people around her were affected. Mental illness, depression, grief and tragedy are glossed over or given a cursory look. What’s touted as a “coming of age” story is no more than an overblown love story that will leave you rolling your eyes instead of reaching for the tissues.

Leav approached her novel like her poems — surface-only, catchy phrases that call for you to feel than think. That, to me, is the real tragedy of Sad Girls.

What’s Hot: Nothing. Go buy yourself another book. If you’ve already bought the book, the suratkhabar lama uncle might be able to offer you a better deal for the book.

What’s Not: Ignore the truth and good things will come to you. Sounds ridiculous? Precisely my point. And this is why I reiterate: Go buy yourself another book. It’s time to whip out Lang Leav’s poetry and a chocolate bar to get over my disappointment.

Sad Girls

Author: Lang Leav

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

362 pages

356 reads

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