New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno knows her way around young adult (YA) fiction. With seven titles under her belt, affectionately termed “messy, complicated feminist YA love stories” on her website, Cotugno understands her market. Her unique voice and carefully crafted prose immediately drew me to her as an author, and I’ve been a Katie Cotugno fan since my first read — but she seems to be changing direction. “Birds of California” is set for release in April 2022, and it’s squarely within the realm of adult fiction — uncharted territory for her career so far.
I first read “99 Days” in the summer between high school and my first semester of university. After a tumultuous senior year, I had three glorious months ahead of me, with nothing to do but lay in the sun and read. I borrowed “99 Days” from my local library and I expected another fun, light-hearted romance. Standing in the library’s tiny YA fiction section, wedged between murmuring mothers with babies in their laps, I was not expecting to find my new (and now, permanent) favorite book.
I immediately connected with the way Cotugno writes characters and settings. “99 Days” centers on Molly Barlow, who’s home for the summer and dreading every second of it. Why? Because Molly’s sweet, nostalgic hometown is filled with reminders of the most colossal betrayal of her life: cheating on her boyfriend with his older brother. Molly has 99 days to face the fallout of her actions, to mend bridges and to figure out the path she wants the rest of her life to follow. I read the book in a single day, and I was hungry for more. I quickly ordered my own copy, keen to annotate and highlight it front to back. I borrowed the sequel, “9 Days and 9 Nights,” and then swiftly ordered her other novels, and so on and so on. Cotugno’s writing is richly descriptive and painfully honest. I’ve re-read “99 Days” every summer since, and it’s my go-to comfort book when I need a story to make me feel something.
What unites all of Cotugno’s novels is her clear sense of voice. While every protagonist is different, Cotugno possesses a distinctive style that makes it clear you’re reading a Katie Cotugno novel, entirely different to a Taylor Jenkins Reid or an Emily Henry. Cotugno’s protagonists are often shy, very observative and a little insecure — traits that suit the young adult genre well. It’s these deliberate authorial choices in voice and characterization that make her protagonists so endearing, relatable and intensely memorable.
In light of her YA success, I can’t help but wonder: Why adult fiction? Why now? And will this be the end of Cotugno’s YA career? A strength of Cotugno’s novels to date has been her accurate depictions of youth. She perfectly captures both the anxiety and joy of being a teenager. To me, her books capture the essence of growing up, and of people and places changing — whether you’re there to see it or not. Her protagonists are sweet, maybe a little naïve at times, and the reader feels deeply for each character, rooting for them at every turn.
I suffer with them when they misread an awkward social situation and celebrate with them when their futures look bright. But how will this translate into Cotugno’s adult fiction?
“Birds of California” follows Fiona St. James, a burnt-out former child actor, and her romance with a co-star. Judging from the blurb on Cotugno’s website, it will tackle mental health themes and is “set against the backdrop of a post #metoo Hollywood.” This is not the first time Cotugno has tackled heavy topics — “How to Love” deals with teen pregnancy and addiction, “You Say It First” dabbles in politics, poverty and alcoholism, and “Rules for Being a Girl” (written with Candace Bushnell) deals with the expectations placed on young women. “Birds of California,” though, is bound to be different, as it caters to an entirely different market.
Cotugno’s adult fiction will likely not address the same issues or storylines as her young adult books. Readers probably won’t see Fiona St. James worry about getting into college or making up with her high school sweetheart. What draws me to Cotugno’s writing isn’t specific topics or even characters, but the delivery. The way Cotugno sees the world and puts it to paper is unmatched. She has an intimate understanding of how the body feels emotions before the heart or mind can comprehend them, which only draws the reader closer to her protagonists and their complex relationships.
Cotugno’s work so far is easy to relate to at any age, but adult fiction will give her room to explore adult topics. Perhaps she’ll dive deeper than she has in her previous works — making it even more important that the book will be on the right shelves and end up in the right hands. And never fear, Cotugno’s YA career remains intact. According to Cotugno’s Instagram, “Liar’s Beach,” a young adult novel inspired by another YA title, “We Were Liars,” is set for release in 2023.
“Birds of California” has massive potential. I’m counting down the days to its release if only to see how Cotugno will handle this new genre. I’m sure I will tear through it in one sitting, as I have with all her other novels. Wherever Cotugno’s career takes her, I can’t wait to read what comes next.