As the story kicks off, Emma Lord’s latest novel Begin Again finds Andie transferring to her dream college, Blue Ridge State, halfway through freshman year. She’s excited to be at the school where her parents fell in love and to reunite with her boyfriend, Conner. The only issue is that Conner’s not there; he transferred to the local community college that Andie just transferred from.
Andie tries to maintain the hope that next semester, Conner will transfer back to Blue Ridge State and her vision of their college years will be intact. They will be together and both be in the secret society of their choosing; Andie will make sure of that. She clings to this belief and does everything in her power to make it come true even when it proves to be detrimental to her studies.
Aside from the Conner situation, Andie’s settling in well at Blue Ridge. She hits it off with her roommate, Shay, a Bookstagrammer who hasn’t declared a major yet, and her RA, Milo, who has an intense caffeine addiction and a hatred of tea. She even manages to make a few friends at her dorm and around campus who help her in various events so she can collect ribbons for Blue Ridge’s secret societies.
Lord captures the feeling of having your whole life planned out and refusing to let go of that vision, even when everything around you is telling you that you have to. It’s not only a freshman in college feeling; it’s something that you’ll encounter again as you get older, whether you’re taking a hard look at the career you thought you wanted or the relationships you thought you needed to have.
That’s the beauty of Begin Again. It’s set in a crucial period of a young person’s life when you’re on your own for the first time, believing that you have to make the absolute right decision to put you on the correct path for the rest of your life However, the journey Andie goes through is relatable no matter what stage of life you’re in. The college setting simply adds some nostalgia, making you remember your college days as you strolled through campus.
That’s only one of the ways that Begin Again manages to sneak up on you and deliver some hard-hitting facts that a person of any age needs to hear. This relatability is one of the reasons why the novel is as successful as it is. If you’re a Virgo, like me, you probably feel particularly called out by Andie’s need to help everyone around her, whether they ask for her help or not. It endears her to a lot of people, but it also negatively impacts her own life when she prioritizes helping someone else over helping herself, a mistake she makes multiple times.
Part of Andie’s journey is recognizing that she doesn’t need to fix everyone’s problems in order for people to love her and that some people will abuse her kindness. It’s not something she is able to grasp immediately; it’s a well-drawn-out arc that isn’t rushed to where it feels unrealistic. You witness how her compulsive need to help people can be a good thing, and how it can also completely ruin her own life, not that Andie notices that part right away.
As an author, Lord is perhaps best known for her YA romances, and the one between Andie and Milo is one of her best. A grumpy guy falling for a ray of sunshine is a recipe that never fails. And although their romance isn’t the main focus of the book; it is a nice throughline throughout. They have some sweet moments, and each helps the other work through their grief and family issues.
There is one aspect that dampens the shine of an otherwise top-tier novel: Andie’s cursing, or rather, non-cursing. It’s not cute or funny. It’s weirdly childish to have her say something like “Strawberry Eggo waffles” or one of her many other food-related non-curses, all of which make you cringe While it’s something she’s adapted from her Gammy Nell, we don’t have any deep connection to either of them that might help us view Andie’s non-curses as endearing or funny.
The only small bright side is that she doesn’t do this ad nauseam. But still, if there’s one small tweak I would make to this book, it would be that. I’d rather Andie said “shoot” or “heck,” if non-cursing is somehow essential to who she is as a character, which I don’t believe it is. There are so many other ways that show how important her grandmothers are to her, so the use of non-curse words is unnecessary.
On the whole, however, Begin Again has pretty much everything you could want in a YA novel. There’s found family, some competition elements as Andie tries to collect ribbons, a fantastic romance, and even some cathartic discussions on grief and healing.
Begin Again will put you through the wringer, emotionally, a couple of times, but you’ll also find yourself laughing out loud and flailing as you witness Andie and Milo start to grow closer.
If you haven’t read a novel by Emma Lord before, you’ve been missing out on something spectacular, and Begin Again is the perfect book to start with. (And for an extra layer of enjoyment, please listen to or compare the lyrics for Taylor Swift’s Begin Again after you read!)
Allison Nichols loves to spend her free time curled up with a cat and a book to read. She’s also a TV Critic and the Managing Editor of Tell-Tale TV. Find her on Twitter: @AllisonBlairN