After her best friend Julia’s accidental death, Cass is at loose ends. She hangs out on the edges of the Julia’s theater crowd but feels like she doesn’t belong. Cass only reluctantly agrees to participate when they throw themselves into producing Julia’s final effort, a half-finished musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. When they cast Cass’s middle school nemesis, Heather, as the lead, Cass is done. She ditches everything for a summer of biking from Chicago to California, to take Julia’s ashes to see the coast for the first time. When she returns, though, she re-involves herself with the play and begins to build a new relationship with Heather.
This was such a “right book at the right time” for me. The idea of chucking it all for a solitary cross-country journey of self-discovery sounds so awesome right now I can’t even tell you. This is the sort of book that inspires a soundtrack — she’s biking, not sitting on a train or bus, but you can picture the “staring out a window listening to folk rock as the corn fields fly by” montage anyway. I have a pretty much endless appetite for that montage, in movie or book form. It’s so romantically appealing to believe that a geographical journey can inspire and mirror an internal journey, that we can return changed to a changed life.
(I said this to Deborah, and she reminded me of the Dar Williams song “Road Buddy”:
I thought we’d find each story like a snake-skin or an arrowhead
But we only stop at fast food places
They hate their jobs; I understand
So okay, not every road trip leads to great discovery; some just lead to French fries and indigestion. Grand romantic gestures are often a disappointment. I think I’ll take my cross-country train trip anyway.)
I actually think this has a lot to do with the appeal of YA for me in general. Every YA novel is in some sense a coming-of-age, and therefore every one is about a reinvention of the self (if not necessarily a drastic one). Adult books often seem to be looking backward at choices made in the past and trying to incorporate those choices into the current self; YA books deal with making those choices and evolving. I suppose at some point I might feel like I’ve accumulated enough of a past that I relate to characters dealing with theirs, but for now I’m still more interested in what happens next and who I am becoming. (Disclaimer: I read comparatively few “literary” adult novels, so I might be way off base here. I want to explore this idea more as part of the endless debate about “how to define a YA novel,” so please share your thoughts!)
Wow, I got off track there, didn’t I? Oops. (Heh… “off track”? Get it? Trains?) At some point I was reviewing a book… A more review-like criticism: I found the timeline really confusing at first, since everything’s told in “Then” and “Now” flashback/flashforward, but it isn’t clear when “Then” and “Now” are.
I also had to suspend disbelief about Cass’s deep hatred of Heather at the beginning. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t sparing a thought for my junior high tormentors by the summer before my senior year. Dude, we all sucked in 8th grade; move on. Eventually we saw enough flashbacks to make it clear that this was a serious pattern of abuse rather than “just” the teasing all middle school geeks go through, which made it a bit more understandable, but still… it felt like too long for the feelings to still be so intense.
Criticisms aside, though, obviously I loved it. It is part of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson/My Most Excellent Year/Suite Scarlett genre of Behind the Scenes of the Offbeat Yet Heartwarming Play. But you know, I’m never going to say that we have too many books about smart kids doing what they’re passionate about. We can never have too many kids doing that, so how could we have too many books about it? If you have recommendations in this genre (that I just invented), I’d love to hear them!