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Book Review: The Boy You Always Wanted by Michelle Quach

Book Review: The Boy You Always Wanted by Michelle Quach

At the heart of Michelle Quachs latest novel is a story about first love, yes, but The Boy You Always Wanted is also undeniably about so much more. This is a story about big feelings in every possible way, from love and family and friendship to illness, tradition and culture, and it all makes for a story thats as light and sweet as it is emotional, even if it doesnt quite dig as deep into some of these themes as youd perhaps like it to.

Francine Zhang is the kind of person who always has a plan, and is always there to help whether youve asked for it or not. So when she finds out her beloved A Gūng is ill and doesnt have much longer left to live, of course she thinks up a plan to help fulfil his final wish of having a male heir to carry on the family traditions when hes gone. Enter Ollie Tran, Francines childhood friend and former crush turned distant classmate – and the perfect person to help Francines plan come to life.

Ollie usually prefers to keep his distance from the too weird, too intense, too blunt Francine, and when she comes to him with her plan hes determined to have no part in it. The more his path ends up crossing with Francines, however, the more invested in her plan he gets, and before long hes agreeing to act like the grandson that A Gūng never had. When the scheme gets underway, Francine and Ollie find themselves reconnecting in unexpected ways, and soon their complicated feelings for one another are getting as mixed up as the lies theyre telling. Now faced with her family, her first crush, and the expectations shes set for herself all coming together in a tangled web thats becoming difficult to unravel, Francine must discover what exactly she wants from Ollie, and what she needs for herself.

This new thing we have now, it’s still a little surreal. I don’t quite know how to make sense of everything, to pinpoint the before and the after, but there definitely was a before, and this is definitely the after.”

The Boy You Always Wanted is a book thats both heartfelt and heartbreaking, constantly towing the line between exploring the rush and excitement of the giddy feelings of first love that grows between Francine and Ollie and the weight of family and tradition that informs so much of their actions and behaviour too.

For Francine, its the high expectations she places on herself to solve everyones problems, even if its to her own detriment, that proves to be the driving force of the story, becoming determined to give her dying grandfather the hope of an adopted grandson by any means necessary, even if she feels dismissed and overlooked or makes herself smaller along the way. Its a tough balance to find between Francine and Ollies acknowledgement of her A Gūngs sexist and outdated opinions and their being willing to indulge them anyway, but Quach manages it and allows Francines love and respect for her family to come shining through on every page.

Her growing feelings for Ollie, too, are a joy to see unfold, taking them from classmates to reluctant partners, to friends to something more over the course of a few weeks of planning, sharing family histories and memories, and spending a lot of time together with Francines family. Quach explores these shifts in their relationship beautifully, capturing the confusing emotions and bubbling feelings from both Francine and Ollie perfectly as they grow closer and closer over the course of the story. More than just first kisses and physical intimacy, however, this relationship also gives Francine a safe space to explore her own wants and needs and begin putting herself first for once.

Ollie, meanwhile, is a bit more underserved by the story, despite this being a dual POV novel with an equal split of chapters. Hes adrift within his own family, often left alone while his parents are busy working and his older brother has left for college, and not as familiar with his family history or as close with his grandparents as perhaps hed like to be, though he has no idea how to rectify that. While Francine does encourage him to begin taking an interest in his own familys history and try to understand where his own parentsdrive to succeed comes from, its ultimately just a side plot that fills the gaps when needed and often goes unmentioned as soon as its done.

Its a shame too because Ollie has the bigger personal development journey to go on, and sometimes its difficult to reconcile the boy whos embarrassed and dismissive of Francine at the beginning of the novel with the boy he becomes by the end. It doesn’t help either that the realisations about fragile masculinity that prove to be the major turning point for Ollie in particular only really take place over the course of just one chapter, with no real grounding before or after to really let the idea take root.

Much like her first novel Not Here to be Liked, Quachs latest book is an exploration of young love, family and culture, with some important topics thrown in too. Yet it’s told in the kind of easy, accessible way that makes YA contemporary novels so important, giving readers information and context that encourages them to make decisions for themselves. Not every element of this book hits the mark, with some soapy twists and turns, convenient character interactions and a few too many big moments happening off-page, but when it hits its stride, The Boy You Always Wanted is ultimately a fast-paced, genuine and enjoyable read about a girl, a boy, a plan and all the messy, wonderful, overwhelming, mixed-up emotions that follow.


The Boy You Always Wanted was published by Usborne Publishing on 3 August 2023

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  • Thank you for your review, which allowed me to understand the story of The Boy You Always Wanted from a different perspective. I have always wanted to write a story about love, family, friendship, disease, tradition and culture. All of this creates a relaxing story. A sweet and emotional story. Thank you for the inspiration and the title Exchange My Life for Your Heart. I think I will spend a long time editing this story.

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