The bones of this story are pretty standard YA. Unable to deal with a baby, Hope’s mom Deena dumps her with Deena’s big sister Addie. Addie is a transient diner cook, so Hope grows up working in restaurants up and down the east coast. At the beginning of the book, Hope and Addie are about to leave their home in Brooklyn, which Hope loved, to take over a diner in small-town Wisconsin.
Ok. From there, I made some assumptions. Deena’s going to show up repeatedly and suck. Addie’s a flake who can’t give Hope a stable life, and/or she’s created a “just us girls” emotionally dependent situation. But Addie turns out to be a pretty solid mom; the moves were about bad luck as much as anything. Deena does suck, but she only shows up once.
The book ends up being much more about Hope making a home in Mulhoney, Wisconsin. She gets involved in the mayoral race between G. T., the diner’s upstanding owner (who was just diagnosed with leukemia), and the corrupt incumbent. She falls for Braverman, the cute line cook. She waitresses the hell out of the Welcome Stairways diner.
That was my favorite part of the book (well, that and the food — can Addie come run a diner in my town?): Hope loves waitressing. She takes such pride in her work, in a way that I don’t see enough in YA fiction. As she’s flying around the diner, wiping up spills, entertaining babies, and filling coffee, Hope muses:
You know what I like most about waitressing? When I’m doing it, I’m not thinking that much about myself. I’m thinking about other people. I’m learning again and again what it takes to make a difference in people’s lives.
YES. That is exactly what’s wonderful about busy jobs: they take your mind off your troubles. That’s a thing I didn’t figure out until college, and I wish I’d learned it sooner.
The political stuff drags in places, and the villain and good guy are clear-cut in a way they rarely are in life. I also wanted to learn more about Addie: why did she move so much? What makes her tick, besides cooking? She’s a very closed figure, and she and Hope seem less close than you’d expect from their history.
But I loved Hope. She’s tough — she’s had to be — but she’s not bitter about it. She’s angry at Deena, but not broken. Braverman, G. T., and some of the other secondary characters are charming in that small-town-novel way. And I got a kick out of the teenagers holding a vigil outside Town Hall in the “mind-numbing cold,” “demand[ing] to live in a town that is not governed by lies and deceit.” Rock on, Wisconsin! (That link goes to pictures of Wisconsinites sleeping outside the Capitol during the protests for collective bargaining rights this winter.)
Fair warning: this book is a big damn tearjerker. I’m an emotional raw nerve these days anyway, but the last chapter had me bawling on my way to work this morning. If you need some catharsis around home or loss or finding your place in the world, this might be your book.