Reading List: Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

[This post is a summary and evaluation, and definitely includes SPOILERS]

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the newest addition to my graduate reading list was Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen which of course was the first thing I picked up when I started my winter break. It didn’t take me long to finish for a number of reasons, but overall I found it a pleasant read.

When I started reading this book, my first thought was along the lines of “this is not as good as what I’ve been reading,” or at least, it’s very different. What struck me right away was how simple and mediocre the style of writing is, but I think this is pretty standard for YA literature when you compare it to a recent National Book Award winner or literature in general. So while it stood out to me, I was able to look past it. The quality of writing was not why I read this book–I was looking at the content.

That being said, I would have had a much harder time getting through Along for the Ride if not for the characters. There was the pretentious, judgmental and incredibly successful mother who made a habit of sleeping with her grad student and forcing her daughter to be an adult throughout her entire childhood. And then there is the father, divorced from the mother because of his personal failure to put out another book 10 years after his first novel was up for The National Book Award. He is now the director of a Creative Writing department and married to a woman the complete opposite of his ex-wife with a newborn baby, and still the same self-involved, inconsiderate and stubborn asshole he was when he lost his first wife. Then there is the protagonist, Auden, named for a poet (at the insistence of her father) who developed insomnia when her parents started fighting at night during her childhood. She is social awkward, quiet, addicted to coffee and looking for something more from life right before she heads off to college to further bury herself in academics.

The interaction of these characters alone was enough to make me want to finish this book, partially because of my own current involvement in academia. But these characters frustrated the hell out of me, which I see as a positive in this case. None of them seemed to do what I wanted them to, they continued mess up every situation they were in, and it was fantastic to watch. I felt extremely sympathetic for Auden as she watches her father’s second marriage fall apart, bringing up old memories of her parents and how that all went down. She begins to discover the faults in her parents which she never saw when she was so close to them, but now seem so glaring as she creates more distance. The family dynamics are what kept me going in this book and are what I found to be the biggest positive.

Of course, there is also a romantic thread–of course, it is a YA novel. And because it is a Sarah Dessen novel, I already knew the (tried and true) formula that their romance would take. Girl meets boy, somehow they connect, girl screws it up with boy, girl mopes, and they resolve it and are happy together. In that sense, I was extremely frustrated because I knew what was going to happen so I was just waiting for it, and then it did happen, but I didn’t feel any frustration or worry because I knew they would get back together in the end. I really do wish YA would switch it up a bit, but I guess that’s a trope I have to live with.

What I found redeeming about this courtship was how it seemed peripheral to what was going on at home for Auden. Eli, the love interest (tall, dark, long hair, dirty, rugged and mysterious), does a great job of creating a soundboard for Auden to release all her pent up frustrations on. He spends time with her at night and helps her regain that childhood she was never able to have because of her parents, but he doesn’t require any fixing of his own. He isn’t important, Auden is. Of course, Eli has his own struggles but they revolve more around the death of his friend one year prior to him and Auden meeting–a life-changing event that is believable, important, but not overpowering of Auden’s current struggles. Auden’s effect on him is more subtle and unintentional, which was, in my opinion, a really nice choice rather than having Auden’s problems being magically fixed as she goes on a quest to fix a boy. I really like Eli, flat of a character as he was, he did what he needed to do and that worked for me. Also, he provides some of the better banter, despite his annoying “strong, silent guy” entrance when we are first introduced to him.

Technique wise, Dessen employs a lot of call backs, meaning an event is briefly hinted at  in the present, and then while we are in the future it is referenced, and then finally explained in either a flash back or in scene. I found this really effective at some points, like when she gets stood up right before the Beach Bash and is telling her friends about it. When we get to this point in the present, all we know is that she was stood up, but she mentions that she (1) was also turned down by Eli, and (2) bought a bike. There are some reactions about this in the present, and then we are launched into a flashback giving us what happened in scene, and then taken right back to where we were in the present. This non-linear way to relay events was really great. But at times, it also failed miserably. Such as in the beginning when she is at a bonfire, then all the sudden she is gathering her clothes, buttoning her shirt, and running home. Wait, what? We then learn that she started hooking up with a guy but then changed her mind and left, but not in scene and not all at once. You almost have to piece it together as people in the present talk about it. I found it a jarring transition which made me have to re-read it a few times to make sure she wasn’t getting raped or something.

And the end. Oh, the end. I mean, stories have to have ends and when you’re dealing with family issues and people who need to make some serious changes in their lives, it’s hard to wrap that all up nicely. So I am a little torn on how I feel about this ending. All the adults seem to be taking steps in the right direction to improve themselves, which I guess is the only way to end it, but with very little happening to them to make them want to change. The mother I believe, because she realizes that her choices in life may have affected her daughter more than she realized–okay, I’ll take it, they talk more and are more understanding of each other, got it. The father on the other hand, has one phone call with his daughter about how he is just giving up again, and he is realizing the error of his ways? Not this guy, he is way too much of an ass for that. I needed more to believe his attempts to be better. There needed to be more from Auden, some screaming, some confrontation. It sucks having to be the child and put your parents in line, but at some point you grow up, realize their faults and call them out on it (some personal experience may be seeping in at this point…) And I just didn’t feel like that happened here.

Of course Auden is college roommates with the girl she totally misjudged as stupid, and she and Eli of course end up together, dating long distance 2 hours apart, but it’s totally okay because she drives there spends all night with him and drives back, and he goes to the college her mother teaches at (The U) so that’s fine too. No, to me, this all wrapped up too well and too obnoxiously. Oh and the bike shop, which had been trying to decide on a new name the whole book, is, of course, named for the Eli’s dead friend. Sorry, just doesn’t do it for me.

But overall, enough adorable and sympathetic moments were present in this book for me to overlook some of the more cliché and all to perfect stuff, and that was really the best I could hope for. I found it to be a fun, quick and lighthearted read that I would absolutely recommend to anyone who wants to feel some warm and fuzzies.

As for what I got out of this for my thesis? Quite a bit! It got me inspired to actually start working on it (the most important thing), and it also gave me some good thoughts to consider for the child/parent relationships in my story. Woohoo!

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