YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

Huntley Fitzpatrick, author of My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, gave a reading and talk at my bookshop last Thursday night.  I had a great time hearing about little real-life details which inspire her, and the writing process in general.  Huntley read aloud from her newest YA book, What I Thought Was True, which is a love story between a girl who works year-round on a New England island and one of those dreaded rich “summer boys.”  I haven’t read What I Thought Was True yet, but the piece she read aloud was funny and unexpected and sweet.

huntleyfitz

But… wait a minute!  I don’t ever read novels with candy colored spines or pretty young people modeling beachwear in the sunset.  If I pick up a beach book, it had better feature a pistol duel between mutineering pirates, or some buried treasure, at least.  So why am I talking about realistic, romantic YA all of a sudden?

I’m thrilled that Ms. Fitzpatrick came to our bookshop because she was funny and interesting and started a great conversation with the audience.  But I’m also glad she came because it gave me a reason to pick up her first book, My Life Next Door, which otherwise I might never have read.  Hah… “might never have”…  I almost certainly would not have cracked the spine without an incentive.  And that would have been a big mistake!  Despite the swoon-y cover, My Life Next Door is actually an engaging story with thoroughly unique characters.  It isn’t one of the assembly-line summer romances which flood the shelves every season.  I couldn’t predict what would happen in each chapter according to some tired out pattern of insta-love, misunderstanding, dramatic rebellion, redemption.  The supporting characters and dramatic tension were a step above what I’d expected to find in a book of this genre, and I take back any judgements I foolishly made upon perusing the cover.  (Reminder to self: authors have no say in their book cover.  I guess international editions are even more surprising for the author, sometimes!)

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Samantha was brought up to dislike the Jarretts next door.  Her mother is an all-too-tidy conservative senator and demanding single parent.  So Samantha has heard no end of complaints about the Jarretts’ messy yard, their overabundance of children, and the general joyful ruckus going on across the fence.  Though she’s not spiteful by nature, Samantha watches the Jarretts from her balcony every night, where she imagines what it must be like within that lively house with such a close family.  Then, one day, Jase Jarrett climbs up her balcony and asks if she needs rescuing.  Typically, this would be the part of the book when I throw up my hands in dismay and shout “UGH!” to the heavens. But I kept reading because…well…  I liked Samantha.  I wanted to see how she would react. And I liked what she saw of the Jarrett family.  No better fuel for good stories like a big, rambunctious family, eh?

The main characters were likable and not melodramatic about their attraction.  Huzzah!  The “minor” characters got plenty of attention, and had really interesting back-stories and plot-lines of their own.  Double huzzah!  When speaking at the bookshop, Huntley Fitzpatrick  said that she sometimes noticed that Tim – Samantha’s best friend’s deadbeat but complex brother, and my own favorite character – kept running away with the story and threatening to become the hero.  I wouldn’t have been surprised.  She did such a good job of making sure that each and every character had their own developments to undergo in the course of this one summer.  Nan and Tim’s family life, Samantha’s mother’s troubling new campaign manager, and the side-dramas experienced in the Jarrett household were all crucial elements to Sam and Jase’s story.   That’s probably why I liked My Life Next Door so much: it was a book about how different people interact, and two of those people just happened to fall in love.  Take away the romance and the (refreshingly frank/realistic) sexual tension, and the story would still have been utterly readable.  Good job, Huntley Fitzpatrick!  Thanks for writing about teens in a way which neither trivializes them nor tries to make them so-edgy-it’s-just-silly.

While thinking about My Life Next Door and What I Thought Was True, I also remembered how much I liked E. Lockhart’s new book We Were Liars.  I read that one in the winter, so my thoughts aren’t quite so fresh in my head, but it would be a terrible shame not to recommend it here.

We Were Liars and My Life Next Door were each rather stressful reads in their own way, with moral conundrums all over the place. While Fitzpatrick’s book has social and political tension to keep things exciting, We Were Liars has a dark mystery at it’s heart.  The reasons for Cadence’s damaged memory are as foggy as the details from the summer of her accident.  She’s been kept in the dark about what happened, but upon returning to the family island she starts to notice that things are a little different.  Her mother and aunts aren’t getting along very well.  Her demanding grandfather is being particularly difficult.  And her friendship with her two cousins and Gat Patil – who she’s grown to probably-love after so many summers with “the Liars” – is weirder than usual.

Why don’t the three of them ever go to the new big house for meals or activities?  Why is there a new house in the first place?  In her uncertain absence, everything seems to have been thrown out of balance, and it just might be her fault.  Unfortunately, no one will tell her what happened.  So she’ll have to find out for herself, even if it means destroying the careful peace of the family’s island paradise.

There was quite a bit of buzz circulating book-world about We Were Liars, but I was determined not to have any set expectations when I read it.  But it’s hard not to make early judgements… as I find out again and again.  My first thoughts upon reading the book were along these lines:

“Ugh, rich people on fancy islands are the worst.”

“Has this family ever set foot into the real world?”

“I wish the patriarch wouldn’t be such an asshole about his grandson’s Indian friend.”

But then I realized something: I felt like I was on the island myself.  I felt like a part of Cadence’s weird family.  When she and her cousins explored the ocean or told secrets under the night sky, I wanted to be part of their group.  It got to the point where I felt like I had seen the island before.  I could describe each and every house to you, even now, months after reading. The setting is so typical of these beachy YA summer novels, but Lockhart sets the scene for her events so well that you’ll forget about any other book’s vague sandy paradise descriptions you’ve had to slog through.  We Were Liars is a short, fast book and nothing is ever a slog.

The plot really extends over two summers, while memories from several previous years filter in and out of Cadence’s reminiscence. The first year she met Gat.  Happy younger days. Distinctly less-happy present ones.  A dreamy atmosphere – brought about by the gaps in her memory as well as the idyllic setting – sets the stage for a series of revelations which come so subtly.  The characters sneak into your brain and heart without asking permission first.  We see everything through Cadence’s eyes, her family and their messed-up priorities, so her dawning horror becomes our own.  I didn’t realize how invested I’d let myself become in the story until I closed the book and realized that I was crying buckets in a not-so-adorable way.

All that initial eye-rolling and frustrated exclaiming was actually adept build-up to the heart of the novel, and now I see why Lockhart chose to make it difficult to muster up sympathy for parts of Cadence’s family.  When you do end up feeling for them, you feel a lot. So yes, We Were Liars got to me, and the book-hype was not disproven after all.

(Last summer, in my back-to-school phase, I reviewed Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, which was not as good as We Were Liars but still pretty fun.)

Two YA “beach reads” with unforseen depths below the surface, lying in wait for the venturesome browser: is it a miracle for this modern age?  A stroke of luck?  Did I just happen to pick up the right two sun-dappled covers because of sheer dumb luck?  I will admit that books like these don’t usually commandeer my attention, but even with no mutinous duels and very little swashbuckling they were very much worth the few hours’ perusal.  If anyone has suggestions of other great stories masquerading as trashy beach reads, please direct my attention to them at once!  I’m not necessarily ready to chart a course for a season of summer romance stories just ey, as I don’t like the sun and heartaches make me seasick.  But I’m willing to re-think my position on them, if there are others like My Life Next Door and We Were Liars waiting just over the horizon.  Please leave suggestions.

Be they cannons blazing, or passions; masts shattering, or hearts, I hope you enjoy your summer reading.

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2 thoughts on “YA Summer Books With Depth: My Life Next Door and We Were Liars

  1. A YA/graphic novel rec for you, with summer in the title — this new book is by my former upstairs neighbor (an extremely talented illustrator) and her cousin. I just finished it last night. Amazing art, and a compelling story too. It’s on the Times best seller list for graphic novels, so I’m not the only fan:

    http://jilliantamaki.com/books/this-one-summer/

    • I’ve flipped through This One Summer at my store, and it looks wonderful! Didn’t get the chance to read it thoroughly because someone bought it off the display (we get excited about good graphic novels) but I will certainly grab a copy for myself soon. From what I’ve seen, the storytelling style looks just as interesting as the great art.

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