On Romance & Rereading Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover

My romance reading project continues and I realise that I haven’t explained what the project is. Very remiss of me! A few of the many books I’m writing at the moment are romances. I’m using that term very broadly to mean not just the publishing genre, but pretty much any book in which the romance between two or more characters is a big part of the overall story. To put it in fandom terms, I guess I’m talking about the kinds of stories that lend themselves to shipping.

For a long while now I’ve been aware that writing romance is not my strong point. While I love many of them as a reader, somehow I’m not quite able to write that magic myself. So I decided to school myself in the ways of good romance writing. Which involves me reading and thinking about my favourite romances, like those by Jane Austen. And now I am on to the marvellous Margaret Mahy, who, along with Diana Wynne Jones, is my favourite YA writer. They’re two of my faves across any genre. Unusual, awkward but beautiful romances are Mahy’s specialty. I heart them.

Now I can assume that most people have read all of Jane Austen’s novels or at least seen the movies and so know the plots.1 But I can’t make such an assumption with Margaret Mahy’s oeuvre. Although she is one of the most influential YA writers of all time, there are still an astonishing number of mad keen YA readers and writers who don’t know her work. Seriously, people, you need to fix that. If you have not read Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynne Jones than there’s a ginormous hole in your understanding of the genre.

Okay, I’m off the soap box now. But if you have not read The Changeover (1984) you need to go away now. I am about to spoil you something rotten.

Every time I re-read one of Mahy’s books I’m struck all over again by what a gorgeous writer she is and I decide that whichever book I’m re-reading is my fave. But The Changeover really is my favourite. The family life is so vivid and real. The Chant family reminds me of many families I’ve known even a little bit of my own. All of Mahy’s characters are vivid and real. The relationship between Laura Chant and her single working mum, Kate, is perfectly drawn as is the relationship between Laura and her wee brother, Jacko, whose magically induced illness is at the heart of the book. And it’s funny. Mahy’s wit is sly and clever and warm. Oh, and scary and chilling. The moment when the evil Carmody Braque stamps poor Jacko is creepy as hell.

But I’m here to talk about Laura Chant and Sorenson (Sorry) Carlisle. I mentioned in my comments on Persuasion that one of the things I love so much about Anne & Wentworth is that they are equals. What about Laura & Sorry. For starters Sorry is 18 and Laura 14. He’s a knowledgeable witch from a family of them. Laura’s only just discovering her powers. Her decision to become a witch is one of the changeovers referred to by the title. So he’s older, more knowledgeable, and possibly wiser. (Though only in some areas). He’s also broken and Laura is not. One of the more moving changeovers is Sorry’s gradual transformation into someone who can feel again.

I also love that The Changeover is all getting-to-know-you romantic tension. You see them falling for each other, but Laura and Sorry do not get together at the end of the book. At the end Sorry goes off to work with wildlife and Laura continues on at school. Which, well, good. She’s fourteen! She can settle down later, say in ten or twenty years time. Most of us do not meet our one true love when we are fourteen.2

Together forever or not, Laura & Sorry are one of my favourite YA couples. Up there with Sophie & Howl.

So what do I take away from this re-read? Nothing particularly new. Just more confirmation that for this reader a romance only truly works if the characters are warmly and convincingly written. I need to know and care about them to care about them in order to care about their love life. I also need to see and believe that they would fall for each other and that it’s more than physical desire. (Northanger Abbey did not work for me on that front.)

What’s your take on Laura & Sorry?

  1. Though, people, seeing any of the movies—even the good ones without Gwyneth Paltrow in them—is NOT the same as reading the books. []
  2. Actually, most of us never meet them. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true. []


  1. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    Sorry and Laura are my favourite YA couple ever, ever. I am so glad you have written this post for them, as I have been meaning to write one for ages!

  2. Aimee on #

    Margaret Mahy signed my copy of The Changeover when I was a wee child, and drew me a picture of a lion. I was completely starstruck, but it is one of my most precious books.

    Hurrah for more recommendations of The Changeover. I got a little bit angry when I studied Mahy for honours last year when people in my class did not appreciate the genius of Sorry and Laura.

  3. alissa on #

    I love the way that Sorry and Laura help one another but at the same time they find their own solutions. They do their own work. They both change but they don’t lose themselves into the relationship.
    They become friends but have the falling-in-love tension.

    This makes me want to go and read it again.

  4. Anna on #

    Sophie/Howl is possibly the most beautiful thing ever. I didn’t really understand their romance the first few times I read HMC, but now I’m starting to see how lovely and complicated and awkward and wonderful and difficult it is. Simply put, it’s fascinating. 🙂

  5. Brynne on #

    I’m so glad you said Sophie and Howl are up their in your top literary couples, because I *love* them. DWJ has a GIFT (well, obviously, but) because there’s never a romantic line uttered between them and yet somehow when they get together it’s RIGHT. They’re easily my favorite couple. I also like Eowyn and Faramir (not a relationship that’s given a lot of space, but there’s something about them . . . ) Taran and Eilonwy of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, Ella and Char of Ella Enchanted (I’m eighteen years old and my favorite books are still shelved in the kids’ section . . . ), and Mairelon and Kim of Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede.

    Some people would say I read too much fantasy. I say, “Nonsense!”

  6. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I’m going to have to and read this book, like, NOW.

    And I LOVE Diana Wynne Jones, too.

  7. Justine on #

    How lovely to wake up to these pro Laura/Sorry and Sophie/Howl comments. I think I shall do a dance of celebration.

  8. Sash on #

    Hi Justine,
    Slightly off topic, but I’ve just started researching Margaret Mahy, and I’m looking for her best explorations of adolescent identity issues. Would you, or anyone else, recommend any particular titles?
    Thank you!

  9. Justine on #

    Sash: Well, you could say all her YA does that. But my favourites are Changeover, Catalogue of the Universe and Memory.

  10. Sash on #

    Thanks. I’ll give those a go.
    (Also – looking forward to the signing at Pulp Fiction next week.)

  11. Azz on #

    I adore Laura/Sorry so very much.

  12. Karen Healey on #

    Sash: And The Tricksters! You mustn’t forget the Tricksters when it comes to identity issues.


  13. Diana Peterfreund on #


    I also love Eowyn and Faramir, and they actually are given a lot of page time — at least more than other (cough cough) so-called “vaunted” romances in that book.

    I remember when I read it for the first time, and Eowyn was in her coma, and I was like, “but she can’t die! She has to get better and marry Faramir!” And my husband, a longtime Tolkien fan goes, “What? Faramir? But she’s in love with Aragorn.” And I, who knew from my romances, laughed at the idea. She wasn’t meant for a demigod. The coolest human warrior in the book was meant for the OTHER coolest human warrior in the book.

  14. Ruth Ellen on #

    Changeover is one of my favorite books of all time. Being a librarian, I actually don’t own that many books (I can easily borrow them), but I own a copy of The Changeover. I like the combination of sweetness and crankiness between Sorry and Laura. Also – Diana Wynne Jones is made of win. I like everything she’s ever written and seriously love most of it. I find Mahy a little more uneven.

  15. Emily on #

    I haven’t read much Margaret Mahy – in fact, The Changeover was the first book of hers I ever read. I love it.

    Though I do root for Sorry and Laura to end up together eventually, I want them both to continue growing up until that happens. Laura does end up inspiring Sorry to change, rather than simply curing him through love, but to have them end up together at the end of the book would be too much like saying that she “cured” him, reinforcing the cliché that women can reform men through simple devotion. Since Mahy has spent a fair bit of time saying that such changes must come from within first, that would be a bad ending to a remarkable book.

  16. rockinlibrarian on #

    I haven’t read this since I was a kid, a very anti-romance sort of kid at that, so I really don’t remember what I thought about the relationship. On one hand, I didn’t hate it, and continued to devour everything else Mahy has ever written, so it must not have been TOO bad. On the other hand I think I would have been dead set against a 14 year old and an 18 year old getting together because that is obviously a HUGE AGE GAP (curiously this is the same age gap as between my husband and I today), and it’s possible my brain would have been UNABLE TO COMPREHEND them AS a romance, even if “romance” IS in the subtitle. Actually, I think that WAS my reaction, come to think about it: that “romance” might have been on the cover, but that was just a marketing ploy, and it wasn’t really a romance at all, just a friendship. That was probably how I dealt with it, having romance forced on me in my paranormal books! I’ll just deny that it’s romance!

    (Oh, Brynne, I ALSO adore Eowyn and Faramir! Actually Faramir is personally one of my hugest fictional crushes. Him and, curiously enough, Henry Tilney. I didn’t say Catherine is the perfect person for Henry Tilney, Justine, just that I, personally, am in LOVE with Henry Tilney! And I’m also another Howl/Sophie adorer, though that’s also likely a relationship I absolutely would not have understood as a child and would have selectively ignored. Luckily I didn’t read that one as a child, so I know better).

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