Thanks to her mom’s successful career at a global consulting firm, 17-year-old Eliza Lin is used to starting over, but she’s tired of becoming “attached to people only to grow apart” when she inevitably moves again. So when she has to post a personal essay to a student-run blog at her new school in Beijing, she tries to fly under the radar with a piece about how she met her lovely but totally fictional boyfriend.
To Eliza’s dismay, her essay goes viral overnight, landing her an internship offer from Craneswift, her favorite online publication—if she’ll keep writing about her relationship for them. Desperate to keep up the charade, Eliza forms a pact with her new neighbor and classmate Caz Song, who also happens to be a handsome up-and-coming actor. Together, they put on the performance of a lifetime. That is, until it starts to feel a little too real for Eliza.
In her second novel, author Ann Liang immerses readers in Eliza’s life, capturing facets of modern adolescence in a funny, clever and moving voice. Eliza wants to be a writer, and her narration is filled with thoughtful reflections on everyday teenage experiences. Though she tries to maintain emotional distance from her peers, she’s wonderfully open with the reader about her feelings of angst, confusion and even fear, making her a relatable character whose story resonates deeply.
Eliza’s viral essay sets off big changes in her relationships and her worldview. Her fabricated romance with Caz is a highlight, but Liang also explores Eliza’s connections with her family, her long-distance best friend and her new boss at Craneswift. Many characters experience nuanced arcs of their own, such as Zoe, Eliza’s BFF, who seems to be pulling away from their friendship, and Emily, Eliza’s little sister, who might be less mature than she initially appears. Liang never neglects the important roles these relationships play in Eliza’s life in favor of romance.
Ultimately, This Time It’s Real satisfies because all of the parts of Eliza’s life—romance, vocation, friendship and more—are inextricable from her changing understandings of home, love and identity. Though romance is a key element in Eliza’s story, the novel’s true focus is on Eliza as she learns to embrace honesty and vulnerability and rises to the challenge of becoming a fuller, braver version of herself.
Readers in search of a sweet romance with a meaningful coming-of-age story at its heart should look no further than This Time It’s Real.