So, Why Did I Write A First Cousins Romance?
When people hear the pitch for my debut YA novel, HOW WE FALL, one of the first questions I usually get asked is “so, why did you write a cousins romance?” In case you’re interested, too, I thought I’d write up something about it.
Yes, it’s an actual love story about first cousins. No, I didn’t write it to support cousin marriage in particular, or because I ever had a relationship with my cousin (I didn’t, and neither did any of my siblings or cousins). Here’s the quick pitch:
In the wake of her best friend’s disappearance, 17-year-old Jackie throws herself into an obsessive relationship with her cousin, only to find out her best friend’s secrets might take him, too.
So, yes, there’s a bit of tragedy to it. And they don’t start out with an entirely healthy relationship. If you’ve read How I Live Now, Flowers in the Attic, or Forbidden, you know those kinds of love take a toll on people. It’s not entirely tragic, though, and the relationship isn’t an abusive one. It’s a flawed one, and a difficult one. (And most relationships are flawed and difficult.)
So, why did I write about first cousins?
1) I love best friend romances. I think they’re sweet, and deep, and full of little tensions. There’s not much like discovering the person who knows you best is the one you want to share your life with. To me, HOW WE FALL is primarily a best friend romance, even though it’s a taboo one. I liked the idea of writing a sort of extreme best friend love story, and the cousin dynamic seemed like a fascinating one to use. For a lot of people, the cousin relationship is a unique one. Cousins know your family, but don’t necessarily share the same baggage. They know your siblings and parents and the special aggravation that can come with them. A lot of people grew up seeing their cousins frequently, so there’s no use having pretensions– they’ve known you since you were little. They’ve been there, they know you, and they’ll be there for the rest of your life.
2) I mean, why not write about cousins? a) It’s not illegal. Cousin marriage is legal in about half the states, and is only considered incest in a few. b) It happens. Some form of cousin marriage accounts for 20% of marriages worldwide. I personally know of three cousins marriages. c) People do write about it. We have a history full of famous cousin marriages, as well as a number of famous novels (including Mansfield Park) where cousin marriage is part of the story. (Also, hey, if you haven’t seen Arrested Development, you really should. Clever, hilarious, great fun.) d) Cousin crushes happen a lot. One thing I find really interesting is the stories people tell me when they hear about it. Turns out, a lot of people kissed their cousin when they were little and a lot of people crushed on an older cousin.
Yes, there are safety issues, similar to other forms of nontraditional relationships, and yes, there are genetic issues, though the genetic issues with children from first cousin marriages are widely exaggerated. The risk of birth defects for children of first cousins is only 2% higher than for the general population. Your own personal genetic history plays a bigger role in your children’s birth defects than marrying your first cousin. Author John Green actually created a very interesting video about cousin marriage. Skip to about minute 7 for his comments on genetic and ethical issues.
3) There’s a lot of conflict. The problems and issues surrounding cousin relationships are exactly why I wanted to write about it. Conflict makes a story, right? Usually, the deeper the struggle, the more fascinating the story. We’ve seen that with other prejudices– biracial, cross-cultural, and same-gender relationships, relationships crossing political, religious, and status lines, and just about any other boundary we put up between people. When the conflict is an immoveable fact with deep-rooted prejudices and potential to harm your family, that’s a significant and difficult struggle. The problems with cousin relationships are a huge part of why I wanted to write about it. It would test my characters in ways not much else could.
4) It’s not really about cousins. That’s the fabric, sure. But to me, How We Fall is about self. About finding out what you really want out of life, and being brave enough to go after it. It’s about emotional dishonesty, and courage, and roots, and missed opportunities changing who you become. And really, I hope it’s a fun read. There’s humor, produce farming, and Casablanca quotes, and flirting, friendship, and sisters. It’s about parents, and being uprooted, and sneaking off in the dark, and Hitchcock movies. It’s about a girl and her family, and the guy she can’t/won’t/desperately wants to go after.
Have you read any other taboo YA? I loved Unteachable by Leah Raeder, and of course the three sibling/cousin stories I mentioned above: Forbidden, Flowers in the Attic, and How I Live Now. Do any others come to mind?