I've been trying to put together my thoughts on Jolene Perry's Has to be Love for over a week now and I'm still not sure I've arrived at a good articulation of them. But first: the story. Years before, Clara survived a bear attack near her Alaskan home that left her with unsightly scars across her face and torso--and left her mother dead. Clara continues to deal with the fall-out from that, missing her mother and also struggling with public reactions to her scars, sure that somehow they prevent people from really seeing her, though she has a lovely and supportive boyfriend.
Enter the end of Clara's senior year. Clara's been accepted to Columbia--her dream school nearly a continent away--and she's waiting on an appointment with a plastic surgeon that will, she hopes, cure her scars. In the meantime, she's in limbo, not sure if she wants the risk Columbia represents, or if she wants the safety and security of a college near home, a life with her long-time boyfriend. When a new substitute teacher (a Columbia student himself, on leave) arrives in her life, representing all the things Clara secretly longs for, her plans for the future become tangled and uncertain.
Things I loved about the book: the setting. There aren't a lot of YA books set in Alaska, and I found the way Clara navigated her world fascinating. Clara's religion: she's Mormon, which you also don't often find in mainstream YA novels. And while her religion isn't a pivotal plot point, it informs who Clara is--particularly her very-real struggles between what her body wants and what she believes she ought to do. I loved too that the plot surprised me several times, particularly in terms of Clara's relationships. It wasn't at all what I expected. Mostly, I found the story so real: Clara is flawed and makes some dumb decisions, but she's also a teenager and human and Perry does such a great job at capturing that messiness and uncertainty.
I do think some readers (particularly if they go in knowing Clara is Mormon) might be surprised at how explicit some of the physical scenes are--and while I think those scenes are important to Clara and to her story, it's not necessarily a story I would recommend for younger YA readers, though for older or more experienced readers it's a wonderful story on so many levels.