The only people in Samara’s life are her neglectful mother, her mother’s abusive live-in boyfriend, and her favorite chimpanzee at the zoo… until elderly Mr. Brook subs for her regular English teacher and changes her life with some poetry.
Sound like a cliche? Well, it… pretty much is. The book is only 173 small-format pages, and that is apparently not enough space to make the characters more than two-dimensional stamps of Neglectful Parent, Depressed Teenager, and Inspiring Teacher. Large chunks of time are skipped over, Samara’s internal monologue is truncated… we never get to know any of the characters enough to mourn or cheer for them. Life is in no way fine by the end of the book (though Samara has found some two-dimensional Quirky Friends), but fortunately I didn’t care enough about Samara to be depressed about it.
Skip this one and go read Whittenberg’s first novel, Sweet Thang, instead. Sweet Thang is everything Life Is Fine isn’t: believable, funny, emotional, engaging, touching. Half my middle schoolers have read it by now, and I bet the rest will by the end of the year. (It’s also short, and therefore a good choice for the “OMG I have to do a book report for Friday!” crowd.) I love it lots, and I have faith in Whittenberg as a writer; everybody stumbles once or twice.