In mid-November, my friend and I watched Dash & Lily at a staycation, a day or two after the series was released in Singapore. The trailer had caught my eye because it appeared to be a teenage rom-com that would certainly indulge our escapist fantasies and invoke nostalgia for the world before the pandemic. Before we knew it, it was close to six in the morning and we only had two more episodes to go. As consumers who were accustomed to instant gratification, we pressed on to enjoy the satisfaction of watching the story arrive at its conclusion in one seating, our fatigue hardly a deterrence.
The story begins at the Strand bookstore in late December, when Dash (Austin Abrams), stumbles upon a red Moleskine with the words “Do you dare?” plastered on the cover. He goes on a scavenger hunt, singing Joni Mitchell’s River in the process, and decodes a message: “Are you going to be lonely on Christmas?” Intrigued by the prompt, he keeps the notebook so that no one else can find it and leaves instructions for the owner, Lily (Midori Francis), to retrieve his response. This sparks the beginning of their epistolary flirtation, which takes them across different spots in New York City, and nudges them outside of their comfort zone — physically and emotionally — as they complete dares set by the other party. They communicate solely through the notebook, taking turns to leave it in safe places.
Our titular protagonists are hardly two peas in a pod. Dash has an unconcealed distaste for the festive season; Lily believes in the magic of Christmas. Dash is broody, cynical and bookish; Lily is sweet, guileless and sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. Since his parents are divorced, Dash enjoys his freedom and solitude, but struggles with building a relationship with his father. Lily, scarred from being ostracized in her childhood, is ridden with social anxiety and stays under the cloak of her overprotective but close-knit family.
The central conflict and resolution of the story are fairly predictable — things will fall apart when they finally meet because they will inevitably fail to live up to each other’s expectations, but they will eventually overcome their hurt feelings after Dash makes a grand gesture to win back Lily’s heart. Yet, I was struck by how the most realistic part of the entire story was the cause of their fallout. In the aftermath, Dash writes:
“Dear Lily, we set ourselves up for this disappointment. I was never going to be the guy in your head and you were never going to be the girl in mine. The fantasy was never going to live up to the reality. There’s no such thing as a Christmas miracle and it’s not your fault, it’s mine for believing. Thanks for playing the game with me. It was fun for a while, but the thing about playing a game is that someone has to lose. And I guess we both lost this time.”
I was instantly reminded of how being enamored with the idea of someone is one of the pitfalls of online dating — how the buildup and anticipation in preparation of the eventual meet-up can easily lead to disappointment — and made me realize what I enjoyed most about Dash & Lily was catching a glimpse of the complex interiority of the protagonists. I wanted more than just a dreamy montage of their courtship, with Gracie Abrams crooning in the background. So I turned to David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, the first of a trilogy, and the young adult novel that the Netflix series was based on. To set the mood, I even played the soundtrack of the Netflix series as I read and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the two songs that were heavily featured in the series, Joni Mitchell’s River and The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, were mentioned in the second novel.
It came as no surprise when I found myself enjoying the written word more than the series, more specifically, their contemplative thoughts. The first message left by Lily in the red Moleskine was far more intriguing but less festive, “Are you going to be playing for the pure thrill of unreluctant desire?” The novel also delved into small details that the series did not have the bandwidth to elaborate on, like how Dash found the notebook only because he was casually hunting for irregular editions of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. The duo actually discuss the novel at length, alongside other literary works, which I appreciate:
Remember in Franny and Zooey (which I assume you’ve read and loved, considering the location where you found the Moleskine in the Strand) how Franny was this girl from the 1950s who freaked out over what’s the meaning of life because she thought it was embedded in a prayer someone told her about? And even though neither her brother Zooey nor her mom understood what Franny was going through, I think I really did. Because I would like the meaning of life explained to me in a prayer, and I would probably flip out, too, if I thought the possibility of attaining this prayer existed, but was out of my reach of understanding.
Most importantly, Dash ruminates about the specific experience of getting to know someone without having met them. Overwhelmed by his longing for Lily but doubtful of the ideal that there was someone out there for him, he hesitates to disclose his feelings through the notebook (“Words failed me, insofar as I wasn’t sure I could find the words that wouldn’t fail her”). He makes an astute observation, “Why is it so much easier to talk to a stranger? Why do we feel we need that disconnect in order to connect?” Even outside of courtship, this statement rings true. The stakes are simply lower and we feel less need to shield ourselves when forming emotional connections, especially if the interactions are transient in nature. I felt this ease the most when I was travelling, whether it was with kind old ladies on train rides, fellow young travelers or caring AirBNB hosts.
Here’s my favorite excerpt from the novel, Dash’s inner monologue after their first meeting:
I wanted to write it down. I wanted to share it with Lily, even if Lily was really just the idea I’d created of Lily, the concept of Lily. If I wrote ‘Dear Sofia’ (Dash’s ex-girlfriend) or ‘Dear Boomer’ (Dash’s best friend) or ‘Dear Lily’s Great-Aunt’ at the top of this postcard, wouldn’t that change the words that followed? Of course it would. But the question is: When I wrote ‘Dear Lily,’ was that just a version of ‘Dear Myself’? I know it was more than that. But it was also less than that, too.
After reconciling the fact that he had constructed an idea of Lily, he still desires to connect with her. While the last two lines were vague, it made me think about how formulating and verbalizing our most intimate thoughts allows us to get to know ourselves better, even when they are directed at someone else. The knowledge that every fleeting connection — a condition most endemic in online dating — is valuable for our self-concept provides me with some solace.
And that is why I am so drawn to both the Netflix series and the novels about Dash and Lily’s romance. Although the storyline of getting to know someone through a notebook sounds like an unthinkable and fictitious scenario, how different is it really from swiping and speaking to a stranger on a tiny screen?
All images by Alison Cohen Rosa for Netflix