Sunday, April 29, 2012

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

Auden doesn’t sleep at night. She’s been an insomniac since before her parents separated, when she used to listen to them fighting in the room across the hall. There’s a 24-hour diner near her house that she spends the late night to early morning at, reading textbooks and catching up on homework. Homework is really all Auden knows. She uses it like a bubble to keep her separated from all of the things that other people her age are doing, the ones that she doesn’t know how to break into. But when her brother Hollis sends her a tacky picture frame (framing a picture of himself) from Europe, where he’s been backpacking for nearly two years, something changes. Auden reads the caption at the bottom – “THE BEST OF TIMES” – and decides to spend the summer living with her dad, his new wife Heidi, and their newborn, Thisbe, at a beach town called Colby for the summer.

Auden doesn’t know what she was expecting, but it isn’t Heidi looking different from her usual, put-together self sinking into postpartum depression, or her absent dad who’s already distancing himself from his new daughter by immersing himself in writing a new book. At night Auden listens to the wave machine Heidi uses to put Thisbe to sleep and notes, “So I was there, in a beachfront house, listening to a fake ocean, and this just seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with the situation from start to finish.”

She starts working for Heidi’s boutique and finds herself right in the middle of a normal, teenage summer that she’s always avoided. A really great sidebar of the plot is a focus on biking – Colby’s bike shop is a main geographical locations highlighted by the novel. And it’s through biking that Auden meets Eli, almost twenty, who used to bike competitively with his best friend Abe. Eli encourages Auden to set out on a quest to reclaim the childhood that she never had since she was pushed right into schoolwork and academics by her professor parents. Following Eli and Auden through these events is so much fun, but underlain by the fact that their quest happens only at night, since both have trouble sleeping. While Auden is still dealing with her parents’ divorce, Eli is dealing with Abe’s death. They form a friendship more than a relationship at first, focusing on keeping one another company during the long hours that they usually spend alone.

The question at the center of the novel is whether people can really change, or if they’re stuck in the rigid, inflexible boxes that they make for themselves. Auden’s interested in the patterns in her family, and is unaware that she follows the same ones, trapping herself in the academic, alienated loop that her mother and father live day to day. She watches her dad slide into the same flawed relationship he had with her mom, and notes,

“If he’d kept himself apart from the rest of the world, these things would have been just quirky annoyances, nothing more. But that was just the thing. He did involve other people. He reached out, drew them close. He made children with them, who then also could not separate themselves, whether they were babies or almost adults. You couldn’t just pick and choose at will when someone depended on you, or loved you.”

Auden doesn’t realize that she’s already trapped in a pattern, and even though Eli tries to show her that she can step outside of that particular way of living at any time she wants to just by changing a few things about herself, it isn’t as simple as choosing to change.

There are so many times that you want to cheer Auden on for showing that it is possible to step out of your comfort zone and change. Because the question about people changing doesn’t just apply to her father – whether he can stay in his new marriage with Heidi and Thisbe – but it applies to herself, too. Auden’s preoccupation with change seems like it’s externally motivated, but looking for evidence of change in other people seems to convince her that it’s possible for her to change also. And the cheering comes with a lot of setbacks and stepping backwards, but Auden was one of the first protagonists in a while where she genuinely surprised me as a reader by some of her actions. Hooking up with Jake, a guy she doesn’t even know when she moves to Colby. Showing up at the bike park without knowing anybody. Standing up for herself at a house party thrown by Eli’s ex-girlfriend. Auden is actually a surprising protagonist, which is something about Sarah Dessen’s novels that makes them work so well. Her protagonists are real, surprising, and flawed.

Even the cast of supporting characters are round and dynamic, flawed and interesting. Maggie was my favorite, filled with a lot of surprises of her own, and throwaway lines like this one that made me snort-laugh every once and a while: “I was in the bathroom. The walls are so thin there! I sometimes can’t even pee if anyone’s in the kitchen.”

My sister has every single Sarah Dessen book, and when I’m looking for something really fun to read, with a good story, and strong characters, I always ask to borrow one. Her books are basically a genre of their own. 

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