TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
"Along for the Ride" is author Sarah Dessen's 9th novel for young adults. If you're already a fan of Sarah, then rest assured that everything you've come to love about her — the graceful writing style, a beautifully conveyed sense of time and place, the complex characters and relationships, and (yay!) first love — is on display here. And if you're a teen girl who's not already addicted to Sarah's books, I'm pretty sure this one will win you over.
First off, many thanks again to the Penguin Young Readers Group for another killer ARC. I may have actually squealed in delight when I saw the advance copy of "Along for the Ride" in last week's mail. You literally made my day!
Now, onto the plot synopsis, which I'll admit is pretty standard stuff. Auden, the school-smart daughter of two literary scholars, impulsively decides to spend the summer following high school graduation at her dad's house in the beach town of Colby. Dad, a once famous writer struggling for years to complete a follow-up novel, has a new young wife, the apparently ditzy girly-girl Heidi, and a newborn daughter, the colicky and constantly screaming Thisbe. Upon arriving in Colby, Auden quickly discovers that her dad's attention is focused solely on his book, making him oblivious to Heidi's exhaustion and Thisbe's continual unrest. Still, Auden's only alternative to this chaos is a boring summer at home studying under the eye of her cold, brilliant mother. In other words, she'll stick this situation out.
In Colby, Auden starts to emerge from her isolated, smart girl shell. Turns out there's a whole lot more to Heidi than meets the eye, and when Auden starts doing the books each night for Heidi's boardwalk clothing and accessories store, she discovers that there's also a whole lot more to co-worker Maggie and her friends Esther and Leah. The idea that female friendship can be empowering is a constant thread in Sarah's novels, and it's just as effective here. When Auden finally confides in Maggie, it opens a world of friendship that changes her life. How refreshing it is to see the positive side of girlfriends instead of the cattiness and bitchiness that typically pervade teen novels. And guess what? It works.
Now, because this is a novel set in the summertime and aimed at teen girls, there's also going to be a cute, wounded guy who totally falls for Auden in an offbeat way. Yeah, that's a little boilerplate, but Sarah's lyrical writing and the slow unfurling of the romance are so well done that you won't mind. Our guy here is Eli, a once-great bike rider still suffering after his best friend's death. Like Auden, the tortured Eli can't sleep at night, so the two explore the quirky world of Colby after dark, which includes bowling, all-night superstores, and a hidden cafe in the town's laundromat. Once Eli learns that Auden never had much of a childhood, he sets out to give her a lifetime's worth of experiences, from food fights to prom night, in one summer. He also works at slowly knocking down some of her walls, while she carefully does the same with him.
Ok, so what worked so well for me are the characters. Auden is bookish and responsible, but she's also incredibly disconnected from her peers. Her slow transformation from aloof outsider to more of a typical high school kid is believable and endearing. Even better, I can't imagine there's a girl out there who won't savor reading about Auden's late-night adventures with the complicated but sweet Eli. I also really loved how so many of the characters had incredible depth to them, especially the parental figures. It's unusual for a teen novel to be at all interested in the lives and tangled relationships of grown ups, but in this case, they're just so complicated and flawed that you can't help but be drawn in. We get to see weaknesses and some surprising strengths in Auden's mom and Heidi, just as we learn that Maggie isn't simply the cute girl at the Clementine's counter. Again, this kind of multidimensionality in a teen novel is rare … and pretty great to find!
While some of the themes here might be a bit played out — summer love found, thwarted, and rediscovered in the end; the old idea that if you fall off a bike you need to get back on it — that's fine. Sarah's writing is so beautiful, the story is so touching and meaningful in parts, and her sense of place is so precise and evocative, that you won't mind if some of this feels a bit recycled. Plus, fans of Sarah's "Keeping the Moon" will love seeing the Last Chance Diner and old pals Isabel and Morgan one more time.
"Along for the Ride" is scheduled for release in June. Definitely keep an eye out for it. This is just about the perfect summer book for girls everywhere, say in grades seven and up. I have a feeling this book will go in a lot of beach bags this summer!