It seems that almost every book with young characters runs a risk of becoming a mixture of love story and coming-of-age journey - a combination that can easily turn stale, grounded in tropes, cliché-filled pseudo-deep conclusions and quasi-sophistication.
After all, the pains of growing up are far from unique. They seem stereotypical for a reason - we all have been there. And yet, while you are there, caught in the moments - the years, actually - of painful transition "in no-man’s-land between the trenches of childhood and adulthood," it all feels raw and new to you, and, like any transition, riddled with uncertainty and disappointments and harsh lessons.
What Laura Buzo managed to do was capture that scary feeling of transition between stages in life and present it in a thoughtful, touching and self-deprecating way that gives the old stereotypes new unexpected freshness. What she also managed to do is give a fair spotlight to things beyond love and growing up - to things like social issues, economic constraints, and gender roles.
If you have lived through adolescence and young adulthood, you will probably recognize either yourself or at least someone you used to know in Amelia and Chris.
Amelia, a serious and introspective girl who "even takes the goings-on of fictitious characters personally" is still young enough to still count her age in years AND months. She feels that she does not quite fit in - like you'd expect a fifteen-year-old. She has unhappy parents and less than ideal home life, and juggles quite a few responsibilities.
Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll are not in her life at this point - but at least some of them are in the life of Chris, her coworker at Wollworths' grocery store, six years her senior and the object of Amelia's desperate, all-encompassing crush.
“You’re pretty passionate about your unhappiness, aren’t you, Chris?”
I looked right back at her and said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
Chris, "the drama queen that he is", is at a vulnerable time in life, feeling a bit lost on a brink of real adulthood, about to finish college but unsure what to do with his life, living with parents because of financial reasons, fixated on a broken relationship by drinking himself senseless and obsessively looking for the Perfect Woman (which Amelia, by the virtue of being a tenth-grader, cannot be for him, understandably - to quote Chris, "Because you are fifteen and I’m twenty-two, we have nothing in common socially and are at completely different stages in our lives."), feeling cripplingly insecure and lonely, underachieving and inadequate, and envious of those who seem to have their lives all figured out while he's stuck in limbo of Woolworths grocery store - or, as he calls it, the Land of Broken Dreams.
"Bottom line is — I can’t run my own race. I’m constantly checking what’s happening in the other lanes."
The unexpected friendship between Amelia and Chris brings along conversations about books (Dickens, Fitzgerald, Plath), unhappy family lives (the sad unfulfillment in Amelia's parents' lives is depressingly realistic) and social issues. My favorite parts (not unexpectedly) were the pages that unexpectedly (for a young adult book!) and very appropriately tackled serious ideas of misunderstanding feminism and deeply ingrained gender roles within families - and does it in a way that is likely to ring true for most readers.
Why is it that women are STILL expected to work AND do all the housework AND raise children? When did 'having it all' turn into 'doing it all' - and in such subtle little ways that few noticed it? And why do we often blame feminism for it - like Amelia does initially - before we stop to think where it's coming from? And why does it take us so long to notice who would *normally* clean the refrigerator?
So, let's sum up:
Dedicated "to absent friends", this book is a story about real friendships, the kind that we miss years and decades later - both with people who touch our lives in unexpected ways and disappear (like Chris) and those who quietly stay by your side through the heartaches (like Penny). It's the story of adolescence and youth that is far from perfect and yet quite real - filled with disappointments, realistic family troubles, looking for acceptance and belonging, stupid choices, smart choices, idealizing so many things, misunderstanding serious concepts, moments of sheer idiocy, discussing 'The Great Gatsby' and Dickens with your best friend who is also your heart-stopping hopeless crush - all told in a self-deprecating, at times very funny and sometimes touchingly sad way. And it's a story about growing up, crossing the thin but crucial border between childhood and adulthood - the one that spans years and happiness and disappointments alike.
I loved this book for all the "real" feeling it has, for the slight sadness and unexpected nerdy coolness and the deeper issues it so unexpectedly easily touches on. I loved that it underscores that not getting something you dearly want may still be good for you. I loved it for its ending - the only possible one, and the one that makes me want to hug Amelia and offer to be her big sister. My future hypothetical adolescent daughter will someday see this book on her future hypothetical bookshelf.
4 stars - despite it poking fun at the Dire Straits 'Romeo and Juliet' song which - don't judge me! - I quietly love.
"It was a pretty poor showing all the way through, but when I got to the bit where I was writing out the lyrics from the Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet” song, I had to rip that out. But then, I really want to be more honest in this diary than I have been in past ones, so everything else stays in. It’s bad enough that I present such a heavily edited version of myself to my friends and family; if I start editing my diary, it will reinforce my already overwhelming tendency to be gutless. But let us never speak of it. For the record, she really did cry when we made love and said she loved me like the stars above and would love me until she died. But, you know, people say shit in the moment."