Stephanie Reents’s The Kissing List is billed as “a bold, inventive, and witty debut about navigating love and life in your twenties… we watch Sylvie, Anna, Frances, and Maureen as they try to maneuver that frightening yet thrilling decade in life when just about anything seems possible.” This is a promising, compelling idea that warrants attention and is reminiscent of MTV’s The Real World, in which the experiences of diverse young people with varying ideals and aspirations are explored.
In its early seasons, The Real World followed 20-somethings as they struggled to establish occupations, relationships, and personal identities while tackling serious issues including racism, AIDS, religion, and homosexuality. For several years, The Real World succeeded at documenting—in an intelligent and sensitive manner—young adults’ conflicts, disappointments, triumphs and tragedies. But the series eventually deteriorated into a Jersey Shore -style display of superficiality that does not accurately mirror the complex experience of those who have just stepped into adulthood.
This tricky stage of life is filled with potential material for a work of fiction: finding independence, building careers, breaking away from parents, and looking for love. In The Kissing List, Reents delves into all of these issues and occasionally reaches an emotional depth that reflects the often-painful transition into the adult world. Portions of the book are as effective as the first seasons of The Real World; however, the rest is similar to the program’s downfall.
The Kissing List is a collection of “interlocking stories” about several young women who have recently graduated from college. The most sympathetic of these characters is Vita, who “graduated summa and won a slew of awards from the history department,” decided not to attend graduate school, and currently dwells in the purgatory of temp work in New York City while enduring her parents’ disappointment. “Now do you regret not taking typing back in high school?” her mother says. “Everyone should be able to fall back on typing when they decide to waste their college education.” Later, when Vita’s boss tells her that she is a “good worker”, she doesn’t know if she should mourn her lost ambitions or just appreciate gainful employment. The harsh reality of being an adult has hit her, and she is unsure “whether to wilt or blossom.”
The Kissing List’s strength is moments of this sort, which are written in lovely prose and feel authentic and emotional. But the book’s weaknesses are the rarity of these moments and undeveloped characters with hidden motivations. Sylvie, for example, constantly describes kissing in a rambling and immature way, and she inanely repeats phrases such as “a kiss is a kiss is a kiss is a kiss.” Like a vapid seventh grader playing spin-the-bottle, she flits from one partner to another, but her reasons for doing so are kept secret. She has intimate contact with women, yet her feelings about her sexuality and the evolution of it are never addressed. Important issues are ignored, Sylvie is distant and muted, she and most of the main characters feel like strangers who engage in shallow romantic hookups of the more recent The Real World variety, and it is quite difficult to sympathize with them.
The greatest weakness in The Kissing List is its structure. The book could have been much stronger had it been written in traditional novel format with a distinct plot and consistent narration. But its vignettes are less powerful because their connection to each other is murky, and many of the stories read as a meandering stream of consciousness. The point of view alternates among characters, changes from first person to third person, and is sometimes so vague that its perspective is hard to determine.
The concept of the The Kissing List is an interesting one and its individual stories sometimes reach their marks, but the book would have benefited from a single, accessible narrator and a more meaningful examination of early adulthood.