The Boy and His Ribbon by Pepper Winters – book review

“Humans were complicated creatures, and smiles were full of poison.”

Image: Jeswin Thomas

Let me briefly mention what my initial reaction was after reading the blurb. It was November of 2019, and I wanted some excellent angsty romances to devour quickly. When I found one that sounded good, I was hoping to find some of the significant clichés in the romance genre that we usually see (which I dearly love; some tropes never get old no matter how many variations of the same plot you’ve read), but holy hells, this was not what I came looking for. I mean that in the best way possible. There is so much adventure in it, so many journeys, so many small stories inside one giant web of memories. Still, even more so, it is an emotional journey (more like an emotionally-gruelling journey, but yeah, you get the gist). You’ll be forced to feel all the emotions that exist under the sun as you go through the story, word after word, page after page, chapter after chapter (as well as book after book). Lovers of fatalistic stories who enjoy getting their hearts wrenched out thoroughly and exhaustively will have some of the best times of their lives with this one here. Buckle up to get absolutely annihilated and exhausted mentally by the time you finish the book(s).

Before I delve into it, I must mention this forthright that this book, or rather, series, is not for everyone. Some might describe the plot’s pacing as snaily, but it just adds to the slow-burn appeal for me. The book starts darkly but doesn’t have many dark concepts (fans of dark romance must not forget to check out the author’s other works; they are some of the best I’ve read). The central trope we find is forbidden romance, with a sizeable age gap and other factors that add to the plot’s ‘conflict’, which is ongoing for probably half the book. With all that in mind, one needs to be extremely open-minded about unconventional relationships to enjoy the beauty of this book properly. It kind of toys with the fine line between what is acceptable and what is taboo, but overthinking about it will take all the goodness away. You just got to feel it.

“What do you do when you meet your soul mate? No, wait… that’s too easy. What do you do when you meet your soul mate and have to spend a lifetime loving him in secret? I’ll tell you what you do. You lie.”

The chapters are narrated in Ren and Della’s POVs – they’re the protagonists. Ren’s POVs are always from the past, the beginning of their story progressing chronologically, while Della’s chapters are a mix of POVs from the past and present. The premise is that Della is given a creative writing assignment at high school to write a non-fiction piece about her life that reads like fiction. So she decides to narrate her life story, filled with untold secrets and unrequited feelings. With a non-existent fourth wall, she chooses to tell the past both in the present time while also using POVs from the past. I’ll add here that the mix of POVs is used effectively to propel the reader ahead. Like, I wouldn’t say each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger; it’s more like an ominous prediction that happens later in the future. Riveting, isn’t it?

The beginning of the book introduces us to a ten-year-old boy with nine fingers and hatred in his heart, sold to slavery, running away from his enslavers with a barely-a-year-old stowaway girl hiding in his backpack unknown to him. Ren, and Della. Della McClary, the daughter of the McClarys who had bought Ren two years ago and countless other children to make them labour worse than animals.

“I wanted twigs cracking beneath my shoes and grass swaying around my legs. I wanted the reward of hard living because every day was sweeter for having survived with no one and nothing.”

Ren was a child of the wilderness, whose heartbeat for that feral contentment the forest provided, the serene calmness the bustling cities couldn’t. His heart was infiltrated entirely by ice and fire for his tormentors. Yet, when faced with the decision to kill their natural-born child and run away without an additional burden and danger or let her live and sacrifice a part of his freedom for a life of obligation, commitment, and responsibility, he chose the kinder path, our Ren Wild.

The story unravels itself as we slowly glean how Ren survived in the wild. Ren never faltered even with the added duty of having to bring up a child while being a child himself. Though he deeply detested her for shitting all over his plans of a perfect future, quite literally during those initial weeks, he managed a feat impossible for most of his peers. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the tenacity and determination Ren possessed to stay away from civilisation, bring up a baby all on his own, and manage to keep both of them alive for years, and still retain his inherent kindness and compassion (though those were only limited to Della and no other human beings).

Throughout, the profound unfairness of the lives they’ve had, especially Ren, kept gutting me at random moments out of the blue, as it will, you. Reading about how Ren never really let go of his guardedness, paranoia, and suspicion even when pushing his thirties will get you right in the heart and squeeze it painfully until you’re left breathless. Far too old and mature for his age, I marvel at his resourcefulness and prowess. All the things he achieved and did in his life make me feel like a proud mama; that’s often what happens when you read about characters from childhood to their… let’s say adulthood (totally not hinting at a spoiler there).

“I’m actually excited to relive the past. To smile at happy times. To flinch at the hard. To cry at the sad.”

I’ll talk about their childhood now.  Even if I say this number of times, it’ll never be enough: what a damn fantastic job Ren did in bringing her up. He never sugar-coated things, told things as they were, taught her practical stuff one needed to survive independently. To him, she was his best friend, his little sister, and his penance in real life. But to her? She hero-worshipped him and loved him with all her little heart. That pure love and affection stemmed from the feeling of dependency they learnt to have on each other growing up with no one around and nothing to their name. Some light-hearted parts were peppered at one point or two to keep things nice and well; it was amusing when Della tried to understand what the whole birds and bees shebang was and how Ren tried to manoeuvre through his puberty with no one to guide him.

It was always the both of them against the world. Witnessing both of their respective growths from children to adults will take you through a rollercoaster of contrasting emotions. If I had to describe it all with a word, I’d say ‘intense’ would probably do it accurately. I’d mention all the tiniest details that were so heart-touching and the heart-wrenching ones, but all of that will be better felt when you read it yourself. The dynamic between them, while it was completely platonic, was just so powerful that now, I think that any normal upbringing for either of them would have turned out for the worse. I mean to say, they complemented each other perfectly, and intrinsic factors played significant roles in how they have grown to be.

Since it was always just them, it meant Della was used to being Ren’s centre of affection. When a series of events lands them at a family’s doorstep, who end up taking them in and become their only family for years, it is hard for Della to deal with the fact that she had to share her Ren with other people. She slowly learnt to hide her emotions, though I’ll talk later about how it blew up in their faces. The duo was caught hiding from the winter in said family’s barn because of Ren’s pneumonia. Spoiler alert: I’ll ask first-time readers of this series to keep that time of sickness and incessant coughing and every similar future event in mind carefully to not suffer from debilitating heartbreak when the true villain of the series is revealed in the next book. I wish I had read this sort of spoiler when I read the earlier books; I wouldn’t have felt so cheated.

Among all the sacrifices Ren has made in the course of his life for the well-being of Della, I’d say the most significant ones were all the years he traded in his heart’s desire to live in the wilderness and be free, with working, to earn enough money to fund Della’s education. It was a significant component of the story, Della’s education. Ren put so much stress on it that she got a proper education just made him more endearing. He, who did not have the privilege of literacy, knew what life was without it and, therefore, ensuring that Della had the best life he could provide, which he did.

When Della was all grown up and just a few years shy of adulthood, Ren watching her drift away from him, making new friends and wanting to be with them instead of him, was bittersweet, wildly as the early years of their lives flashed through Ren’s mind. It’s been almost a year, and yet I still can’t begin to find appropriate words to describe the agonising ache I get in my heart when I compare those lovely, simpler days of their childhood to their present (as in both at the end of this book, as well as that of the series, as a re-reader).

Almost a decade of angst and build-up when finally exploded in their faces. It had to be cataclysmic. Ren’s decision to eventually leave… I completely understand his reasons and why he couldn’t stand being around her anymore, but from Della’s perspective, I’m getting second-hand hurt here, dammit! She’d finally begun to find her place in the world, but he had to abandon her right at that turn. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming either of them. I’m just lamenting the way things turned out.

If I sit and think where things went wrong or what exactly was the beginning of the end, just so many things come to mind that don’t make sense in some way or another; like there isn’t any particular thing or event that could’ve made them avoid their bleak future if it hadn’t occurred.  It’s as if it was doomed to be so since the beginning of time. “This boy and the baby were never meant to be together.” Now that I think of it, this specific line will hold more significance than ever if you consider a very important event in the third and final book from the series.

I’ll mention something unique for me while reading this series. I generally don’t prefer listening to music while reading because I enjoy music almost as much I like books, which is why it’s not fair if I divert any of my attention away from the books. But this series was perhaps one of the first series for which I found a soundtrack I thought suited it ideally. Although I love the playlist the author has mentioned at the end, I usually can’t enjoy those with the book, and that’s why it’s a big deal for me to find a whole another song that I could mix with my reading and enhance both of those experiences at the same time. It had these magical vibes to it with a perfect blend of innocent joy and soulful sorrow that flawlessly encompassed the mood of the series as a whole for me.

This book, or rather, this series as a whole, doesn’t have any fantastical feels or concepts; it’s just another coming-of-age, contemporary romance, if you look at it that way, yet it’s one of my favourite series of books ever (I generally don’t tend to favourite romance books purely as compared to their fantasy counterparts since they hit harder). The root of all the angst, the wrongness of Ren and Della’s supposed non-platonic relationship that they both feel is the best and worst part. Worst because, well, all the conflicts and arguments and heartache wouldn’t be there if they just accepted their feelings and got together, but the best because things like that don’t happen in real life. Both of them, but mostly Ren, stuck so loyally to his morals and honour that he denied himself of harbouring any feelings for Della and kept hurting both of them with his words. Della being a child at first and then a teenager did stupid stuff that set in motion more than half the ‘bad things in the plot, if you will. It’s not a love story; it’s a life story. It is realistic to the point that it hurts. They made mistakes but which weren’t smoothed over unrealistically. They had real consequences that strained their relationship and general dynamic forever. Even if it’s fiction, the stark element of reality is what makes it so sweetly painful. Lines get blurred, and conflicting emotions rage on like a storm: inside of Ren, inside of Della, inside of you, inside of me.

At around 80%, you’ll realise that the ending isn’t happy at all; Ren isn’t with Della anymore. He’s gone, and he’s not coming back, as Della has worded. Another arrow to the already decapitated, mewling heart. In earlier chapters, Della says that they have been separated all four times in their entire lives. I remember my first run of this series; I dreaded it so much when the next separation scene came up. That was so horrible, yikes. One moment you’re sighing with relief, the other you’re teetering on the edge of your seat, hoping things don’t take a turn for the worse, which they eventually do end up taking.

“It was heart-soaring and soul-crushing all at the same time.”

Reading their story was like being the sole witness to a catastrophe unfurling. At the same time, you stand there helplessly unable to do anything, unable to peel your eyes away from the devastation waiting to happen, especially when, as a re-reader, you take note of all the little things that slowly contributed to the worst ending imaginable for them (it comes later in the series, as I keep repeating). It’s a chilling sensation, to say the very least.

To look at it from a distance, the plot might seem like a description of all the consequences of the mistakes a bratty teenager committed. Still, once you get into it (which you will, after reading the first few chapters), you’ll end up caring for Ren and Della so deeply that you’ll feel the undeniable need to know what happens next, how their story ends. It confused me this time just as much as it had the first time I’d read it, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. Well, at least unlike last time, I didn’t bawl my eyes out wishing for them to be somehow, miraculously, magically together (since yes, after an entire book and almost eighteen years, they still aren’t together, albeit for valid reasons). To my relief and chagrin both, the problems that’ll arise in the next book make their separation seem like silly first-world problems. I’ll save my tank-full of tears for the real bullets for my heart that I’ll face in the next two books.

To sum it all up, I’ll say that this book is brutal. It’s going to destroy you. That fact doesn’t get any better with the next book(s) either, but do I regret making myself go through it not once but twice? You bet your derrière I don’t.

By Soyeenka Mishra

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