*Given a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
Zyla & Kai by Kristina Forest is a young adult romance bringing together two teens who think they are too different but find enough common ground to develop a relationship that always seems threatened by outside factors.
The story starts with the title characters going missing from a school ski trip, but it really starts the summer before where the two are lowly amusement park employees trying to earn extra cash for college.
Hezekiah “Kai” Johnson is working at Sailor Joe’s Amusement Park over the summer when he and his on-and-off-again girlfriend Camille start arguing in front of customers. Camille approaches Kai over his alleged flirtatious behavior with other girls on the job. Kai denies the allegations, but the hullabaloo has almost cost them their jobs. Once Kai gets home to Aunt Brenda and Uncle Steve, they tell him he needs to swear off girls until he graduates high school and matriculates at the family alma mater Morehouse College, the historically Black men’s college in Atlanta. His father and Uncle Steve are college alumni while his mother and Aunt Brenda attended the Black women’s college next door, Spelman College. The dream to continue the HBCU legacy keeps Kai motivated, especially since he lost both of his parents in a car accident. Even when he catches up with his therapist, he doesn’t seem to understand why he keeps getting entangled with the wrong girls.
Zyla Matthews is the opposite. She’s afraid to commit to any relationships. Her mother constantly curling herself up in a ball and crying over her latest boyfriend is enough relationship drama for Zyla to handle. Since Zyla, her mother, and her sister live with her great-aunt, Zyla wants to add more money to her college stash. She has her eyes on fashion school in Paris. So, she’s spending her summer at Sailor Joe’s. When a rowdy customer threatens Zyla at a booth, Kai inadvertently comes to the rescue.
Sparks fly between the two employees even as summer fades and they attend their separate schools. Morning text message exchanges kindle the flame. Once Zyla and Kai start getting serious, they fret over introducing each other to their respective guardians. Kai’s uncle and aunt had already banned him from dating while Zyla’s mother and great-aunt have track records of making mistakes with men.
Despite their families’ reactions to their budding romance, they get the blessing to continue seeing each other. Zyla goes to parties with students who go to school with Kai, including his trail of ex-girlfriends. This worries Zyla, who has never been in a relationship and fears she’ll get hurt like her mother does every other week. Kai, who’s still battling the overwhelming grief of losing his parents suddenly, tries to reassure her that he only has eyes for her. Then on Valentine’s Day, when they shed all their insecurities, the night is ruined to the point they have to face their fears again about their relationship.
What stands out in this book is how both characters are dealing with their inner demons and letting those demons get in the way of their relationship. With Kai growing up without his parents and Zyla still facing the post-divorce reality within her family, they are trying to figure out how to define love for themselves. The hormones are telling them one thing, but their brains are forcing them to think further on their gravitational pull. Kai is known as a player when in actuality he’s looking for love in all the wrong places. He tries to live down his reputation as Zyla becomes insecure about being thought of as another one of Kai’s girlfriends, mainly when they’re around Kai’s crew.
The family dynamics also play a large role in the story. Kai is close to Uncle Steve and Aunt Brenda, but he feels he is failing at being his best for them. They’re the ones who took him in when he became an orphan, so he feels he’s letting them down when he prematurely commits to his promise of not dating any more girls. In the beginning of the book, we see Zyla comforting her mother in the car after another breakup. Zyla is the one who lets her mother rest in the backseat and drives them to their destination. She has to be mature beyond her years for herself and her younger sister Jade since her mother doesn’t have it together and that’s why they live with Aunt Ida, a curmudgeon always muttering about how bad men are.
If you’re interested in reading the audiobook, narrator Tashi Thomas does a fantastic job of switching up the characters’ voices. When she returns to the story narration, sometimes her voice comes off as mechanical, but the audio recording is a smooth listen.
Overall, this YA romance dives deep into how family dynamics can interweave into a blossoming relationship. The mental health aspect ties into the family dynamics as we see Kai attending therapist sessions that contribute to his character development of trying to be more self-aware about his relationships. Zyla, an aspiring fashion designer, uses retail therapy as her outlet instead finding pieces at the thrift store to create her own designs. They are teenagers looking for ways to cope with their environments, and once they bond together, they start to question their stability as a unit and as individuals. The ups and downs to get to the happily-ever-after feels like a pleasant ride on the Ferris wheel.