Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

The news was delivered by my mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter, fiddling with his hands and looking tired. "Your father and I are separating," she informed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I'd so often heard her use with students as she critiqued their work. "I'm sure you'll agree this is the best thing for all of us."
Hearing this, I wasn't sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushing disappointment, and again, it wasn't a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there, the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was the weirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood to wash over me, long overdue.

As a holdover from high school, I have a weird loyalty to Sarah Dessen. North Carolina has more than a few bestselling authors to its credit, but Dessen has been my favorite since a friend passed me a copy of "Someone Like You" in history class junior year. I've seen her speak at my favorite local bookshop in Raleigh, Quail Ridge Books. I've seen her speak at the Bulls Head in Chapel Hill. It was only my limited writing ability (and limited interest in creative writing) that kept me from taking her creative writing course at UNC. My love of Sarah Dessen is well-enough known that an my high school boyfriend's mom, who managed Quail Ridge, used to save the proof copies they received for me long after her son and I had broken up.

The last few Sarah Dessen books have been disappointing for me. I was beginning to think I had perhaps outgrown her as a writer. I probably have; all of Dessen's main characters are in high school, or have just graduated. The summer before college is one of her favorite motifs. Maybe I had been away from that point in life too long to appreciate a book written from the point of view of a high school girl.

That being said, I loved "Along for the Ride." This was the Sarah Dessen that I remembered. For some reason the story was more engaging and the characters were more likable than in the last few novels. The story begins when Auden, a perfectionist who spent her high school years studying rather than socializing, moves to the beach to live with her dad, stepmom and baby sister for the summer. Auden leaves her perfectionist professor mother at home, and in doing so opens herself up a world she has never allowed herself to see - a normal teenage summer.

In between her new job managing the accounting at her stepmother's store and helping out with the baby at home, Auden internalizes her father's selfish behavior towards his wife and baby, and blames herself for their resulting separation. But there is another, happier side to the summer: a boy. There is always a boy, isn't there? Auden meets Eli, manager of the local bicycle shop, who is battling his own demons after the death of a friend. The two, who both suffer from insomnia, set out on a nighttime quest to allow Auden the experiences she has missed in her cloistered upbringing: bowling, going to a dance club, food fights, etc. Along the way, predictably (but not disappointingly) they fall for one another.

I don't know what about this particular novel made it so much better in my opinion than the last few by this author, but I did get some insight from a video she posted on, A new mom herself, Dessen hadn't planned on writing another novel so soon after her baby's birth but said this novel mostly wrote itself. She was happy while writing it and it didn't feel like work at all - so maybe that explains the difference.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

I just read my first Dessen novel (Lock and Key) and was pleasantly surprised both by the depth and by how universal it was. I expected it to be more like teen chic-lit, which I can't stand, but it wasn't at all. It wasn't my favorite book, and its depth obviously isn't the same as a classic, but it was far richer than I expected and I liked that despite the narrator being in high school, I could related to and understand her story. I could also relate to the adults around her, which helped.