I love a good boy next door story, because first I loved the boy next door.
His name was Matthew, and I was two when we moved onto his street. A narrow strip of woods separated our houses, but as we grew older we wore a path between those roots and branches, so wide that it was hard to imagine a time when our lawns and lives hadn’t been connected.
And just like I couldn’t remember a time without the path, I couldn’t imagine a time when Matthew wouldn’t be a part of my life. We made a pact to grow old, to get married, to never stop climbing rocks or exploring. To never yell at each other if we came home in ripped pants and one shoe, because we’d lost the other along the muddy stream bank in our forest. He agreed with my belief that no outfit was complete without a flower/weed crown. And I fully supported his desire to build and climb Mount Everest in his sandbox. We planned to eat hotdogs every meal—wrapped in a buttered piece of white bread. Chasing these with chocolate milk and an ice cream sandwich that we’d eat in layers—both cookies first, then that rectangle of vanilla ice cream, chasing the drips away with sticky tongues, then rinsing off in a sprinkler.
We had plans to be astronauts and train engineers and royalty and pop stars—and veterinarians who never had to deal with the bloody or sad parts. Basically, we’d just snuggle the pets.
Then a for sale sign appeared in his lawn. And Matthew’s family moved away.
Over the years I’ve searched for him on Facebook and come up empty. He exists in my memories and a collection of pictures in old photo albums my parents’ basement. He lives somewhere else in this world having a life that is as separate from mine as it was once entangled.
Matthew moved right around the age when I read Little Women for the first time—meeting my first literary boy next door in Theodore Laurence (aka Laurie). I’ve been a sucker for this trope ever since.
There’s something so irresistible about the idea of having a shared history with the hero. Someone who’s seen you in your faded, blueberry stained Strawberry Shortcake swimsuit and watched ET with you while you had the chicken pox. And despite having witnessed the bangs you cut yourself with safety scissors and the time you peed your pants at the playground* still thinks you’re pretty great. The idea that that same someone could stick by your side through all the awkward body changes and skin disasters of puberty and that time the woman at the mall makeup counter convinced you white eye shadow and eyeliner was totally flattering… and then look at you and realize how remarkable and beautiful you are— it’s the stuff of fairy tales. Or at least of country songs and romance novel plots.
The friend next door is someone you can ask to prom without them reading into it (though you secretly hope they will read into it and cross the boundary between friend and girlfriend/boyfriend). They’re the person who’ll help you hunt down your dog when he escaped out the backdoor, or who immediately gets it when your siblings are tap dancing on the shreds of your patience—possibly because you dragged him to their recital so you wouldn’t have to endure it alone.
It’s like that meme that’s been everywhere lately: If you don’t love me at my (worst), then you don’t deserve me at my (best) .
if you then you
don’t love don’t deserve
me at my me at my
— Netflix US (@netflix)
There’s reassurance in knowing that if someone’s tolerated you this long, they’re hopefully not getting sick of you anytime in the future. That if they’ve grown up with you without growing apart, that your journeys could continue on the same path.
There are other types of boys next door—there’s the forbidden, mysterious bad boy hidden away on the other side of a fence; there’s the exciting new boy who just moved in—I like these too. And I adore books that subvert this trope as well. But it’s that shared history that I keep coming back to, both in the books I love to read and in those I like to write. There’s something powerfully grounding and steadying about a love interest who knows who you are and where you come from—especially in a plot where the heroine’s life and identify are about to go through dramatic shifts.
I devour these plots. Give me a love interest that references the heroine’s past and future and I go swoony eyed.
And if you are a boy next door fan as well, I think you’ll be pretty excited by Bookish Boyfriends 2…
*These are all purely hypothetical, of course.