The premise sounded perfect to me: a blue-collar town with a working class family struggling with a lot of tough issues. There’s romance, there’s drama, and what promised to be an intriguing road trip to turn things around. Your classic teen coming-of-age novel with a character you know will resonate with a lot of teens, The Snowball Effect is Holly Nicole Hoxter’s debut novel. But as much as 18-year-old Lainey Pike will be the person teens are drawn to, the situations in which she finds herself may ask a lot of your teen readers who are growing up reading the characters and situations of Sarah Dessen, Elizabeth Scott, Deb Caletti, and Susane Colasanti.
Lainey’s mother has killed herself, and Lainey now finds herself with her adoptive special needs brother Collin and a lot of hurt and anger. While it’s true she’s angry at her mother for what she did, she’s more angry that this is not the first thing she’s done to disappoint: Lainey’s mom had been irresponsible forever and had caused a lot of mental anguish for her teen daughter…and the daughter who has essentially left the family to find herself in other parts of the country. But it’s that death that ends up bringing Vallery back to the family.
In the midst of this, Lainey begins to feel distanced from her long time boyfriend and mega hottie Riley. Actually, never once is he referred to as mega hottie, but for all intents and purposes, that’s how I see him. He’s into cars and sports, so let’s go with it. When she’s feeling this distance, Lainey runs into a guy by accident — Eric — and as you will probably guess, they begin to find themselves liking each other a lot. There’s a metaphor in the book about different flavored snowballs that speaks to the issues within the book, but I mostly found myself really angry that Lainey was so into herself and situation to think that snowballs only existed in the Baltimore area. Actually, they began in New Orleans and are alive and well in Texas. I digress.
Hoxter’s story focuses on the importance of cultivating relationships and letting past transgressions live in the past. I think a lot of what she says in her story is important and I think it’s done in a way that will not be like hitting a reader over the head. Rather, it settles at the end of the story.
That said, I did not find myself liking any of the characters. Although I read a number of reviews that Lainey is actually a great representation of people who have dealt with a lot of tragedy in their young lives, I felt like the other characters needed a lot more development. Vallery, who was supposed to be the older, wiser, and “motherly” sister in the situation, ends up getting very childish in the story, and not just because of the situational issues. Instead, I found she was written much more like Lainey’s friend than sister, and it never worked. And Collin’s role in the story just irritated me: I wanted him to disappear since he was clutter. While this works in the context for understanding what makes Lainey’s life tough perfectly, I felt like Lainey was developed strongly enough on her own that it was really unnecessary.
Riley and Eric were kind of one and the same to me, but this is not anything totally different from most books of this ilk. Riley does sweet things to win Lainey back at the end, and I did remember what his life’s interests were, so maybe he was a little stronger than Eric, who sold magazines and ate slurpees (or snowballs, but don’t get me started).
But here’s the kicker: I felt the entire last 1/3 of the book was not well developed or as coherent as the first 2/3. I thought the beginning slogged along a bit as we got to learn Lainey’s life situation, but this pacing was very important to the story. When we get to the road trip — another point of Vallery’s status as friend rather than caretaker/older, wiser person (which she states she is when she relocates to be with Lainey) — it just felt sloppy. Collin was kind of a prop here, and it was all too convenient that the road trip was to Orlando, where Lainey could conveniently meet up with her relatives. I just wish this were longer or were done differently. I think a lot of readers will find it to be too convenient a way to wrap up the story that is so clearly about difficulty.
The Snowball Effect may not have been my favorite read, but it was done well and was one of the stronger debuts I’ve read this year. I think that Hoxter may have found an interesting niche, too, by focusing on the working class lifestyle. Think about your standard realistic fiction fare: they’re almost all middle class or wealthier characters who never have to worry about a next pay check. Sure, the family lives are unstable and that is something to take with consideration, but I can’t remember the last time I read a story where the socioeconomics were so different. Most of the time it’s actually not even brought up, so to have it come up is refreshing. I work in an very blue collar area, and I believe these are the sorts of stories my kids could really, really relate to (and what do I know – the moments I felt were moments I needed to suspend my belief may be completely real to this audience). Again, the readalikes are easy to suggest. Call it the mega hottie effect.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).