Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: ALONG FOR THE RIDE by Sarah Dessen

It’s been so long since Auden slept at night. Ever since her parents’ divorce—or since the fighting started. Now she has the chance to spend a carefree summer with her dad and his new family in the charming beach town where they live.

A job in a clothes boutique introduces Auden to the world of girls: their talk, their friendship, their crushes. She missed out on all that, too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother. Then she meets Eli, an intriguing loner and a fellow insomniac who becomes her guide to the nocturnal world of the town. Together they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she’s been denied; for Eli, to come to terms with the guilt he feels for the death of a friend.
I must tell you the truth. Please withhold any shocked gasps, looks of amazement, or head-shakes of disdain. Though I am a self-titled YA blogger, I tend to shy away from contemporary books and therefore... have never read a Sarah Dessen book.

Not one.

I know, I know. I knew I had to remedy the situation this summer, so I turned to Twitter for advice. Ms. Chandra from Indigo Teen Blog and Ms. Melanie Fishbane who knows practically everything suggested Along for the Ride. Yay them!
Along for the Ride was about how I expected it to be, for the most part. There's a troubled boy and a troubled girl. They meet, they rub each other the wrong way just a little but not too much, they become friends, romance ensues, and they start to heal each other's hurts. There'll be some misunderstanding, everything seems jeopardized, then awwwww, happy ending.

Typical romance plot. Given the light and airy cover, I would've been disappointed by anything else.

For the most part, I liked Auden. I related to her. Though not to the same degree, I am also sometimes baffled by "girl things" - vapid chattering about boys, details regarding makeup, hair, nail polish, or clothes, and certain social conventions regarding other people.

So when she stands in a doorway and stares at three girls boogying their way around an empty store to Elvis' rockabilly music and retreats rather than join in, I totally get it. Being completely overwhelmed by an office drowned in glaring pink and orange? I totally get that, too.

What I don't get was Auden's decision to take a tumble in the dunes with some random boy her first night in town, considering she'd never even KISSED a boy before (to my knowledge). (Oh, and you promised me no sex, Chandra and Melanie!) I think the point was to make her acceptance into the kids' social circle harder, but couldn't Dessen have accomplished that with Auden's standoffishness alone? I didn't get it at all.

Another thing I liked combined with something I didn't get was the girls Auden eventually befriends. They're a delightful trio, Maggie especially. Girly and silly, yet sharp and funny, they're just the kind of girls that anyone could be friends with. They're the ones who started the nine o'clock dance-off in the store, and they're the ones who help Auden learn the rules of society.

They're also the ones who like to smoke, drink, sleep around, and club-hop, never mind that they're underage. Geez. Would it kill the contemporary genre to give me ONE book where being completely stupid and illegal isn't advocated? I don't expect all books to be devoid of these elements, because kids really do go out and do these things. It's realistic, I get it. But what isn't realistic is making it seem like EVERYONE does these things, except for maybe the poor, repressed, geeky kids who don't know any better.

Sorry. Sore spot. Moving on.

The main troublemakers in the book were Auden's family. Her dad is a self-centered idiot, too wrapped up in his work-in-progress to see that he's making the same mistakes with his second wife that he did with his first. Seriously, I would've snapped and killed the man myself. Auden's mom is a hard-nosed intellectual who demands autocratic perfection from her daughter. Pink and all things girly are to be despised because they're weak. She's supposed to be pretty in the book, but I kept hearing and see Leonard's mom from The Big Bang Theory, because they sounded so much alike. Auden's brother is a drifting loser who flits from one European country to the next and calls home only to ask for more money... until he ends up dating a girl exactly like his mother.

Because that totally seems like a good idea.

Here, Auden frustrated me the most. I know dysfunction is really hard to see from within the dysfunctional unit, but it took her foreeeeeever to see that they were all seriously screwed up. I wanted to smack her every time she sided with her father over her stepmother, every time she failed to consider even common courtesy. (Stepmom is so tired that she's bawling? Offer to take the baby for a second, you numbskull.)

One thing I did like was that Dessen didn't make Auden skew full-on girly to counteract her mother's staunch I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR creed. As some of the girls, especially Maggie and Heidi, proved, you can love pink and kiss boys and dance to music and still be razor-sharp intellectually.

I'm focusing on Auden here, because - while cute and sweet - Eli didn't do much for me. He seemed a little stock to me. Again, perfectly nice, but he didn't seem unique, swoon-worthy.

I also liked the ending. Some of the conclusions I didn't quite believe (lookin' at you, Hollis and girlfriend), but it was still sweet and satisfying. I love forehead kisses.

It may seem like I'm being awfully dour on this book, but that's only because of my tastes and expectations. I'm a fantasy/adventure/dystopian kind of girl. I like meat and detailed, exciting characters, not rom-com cliches. (Never really could get into rom-coms - drove my roommate crazy when I picked apart her movies.) I have also inferred that Sarah Dessen writes "Like, the best romantic contemporaries EVER! OMG!!" To me, Along For The Ride wasn't the best.

But it was good. It was light. It was fluffy. It deserves to stay on the summer reading list, and I may, in time, pick up another Dessen. I consider this experiment a cautious success.

Points Added For: Maggie (because she's awesome), literary names (maybe not Thisbe, but I think Auden is pretty), a sweet ending.

Points Subtracted For: A frustrating lack of communication, major dysfunction, unnecessary teen idiocy, the cover (when does Auden EVER wear any pink other than that one jacket?!).

Good For Fans Of: Other Dessen books, Deb Caletti books, Jennifer Echols books, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, My Life Next Door by Hunter Fitzpatrick.

Notes For Parents: Underage drinking and club-hopping, sex (nothing shown, just mentioned afterward), language, tense family moments.

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