I love a good road trip book. I’m extremely forgiving of them when it comes to plot, even, because I appreciate the story of movement, of place, and of the importance of getting out and seeing things. There’s always a sense of tension built straight into a good road trip book, and I think that that is part of why I’m forgiving when it comes to a lot of plot challenges. And while I found Julie Halpern’s Don’t Stop Now to be one of the stronger and more enjoyable road trip books I’ve read in a while, I did find myself struggling a little bit with the secondary plot of the book — the motivation for the road trip — and I almost wish that the secondary plot hadn’t happened at all. Even if it killed the motivation, the book would have been stronger as a straight forward road-driven narrative.
It’s the last summer before college, and on that first night of freedom, Lil got a phone call from her friend (which is a loose term, to say the least) Penny. She doesn’t answer it, but when she checks her voice mail, the only thing Penny says is “I did it.” Lil’s keen on the fact Penny has a crummy home life and that she’s been on again and off again with this guy Gavin who she suspects might be a bit abusive. Can’t know for sure, though, since she’s only kind of friends with Penny. But when the police, Lil’s parents, and Lil’s best guy friend Josh start asking Lil more and more questions about what happened to Penny, she decides to take action. Lil believes Penny’s pulled off her own kidnapping, and now Lil wants to get away too to finally come to grips with the freedom in front of her.
More importantly, though, Lil wants to know whether what she has with Josh will always be friendship or of it’s something more.
The strength of Halpern’s book, from the start, is her writing. It’s easy and fun to read, and it’s spot on realistic for teens. These characters have feelings and deep thoughts, for sure, but the fact of the matter is, they act upon impulse. Even when they finish high school, impulse is the cue for action, and Halpern captures that. Her writing is tight, and while the novel spans a lot of distance, her writing doesn’t cheat that part of the story. Part of what worked for me as a reader, I think, is knowing the descriptions of road side attractions are accurate and realistic. Lil and Josh begin their road trip in southern Wisconsin at an iconic Cheese Palace, and being an expert on both southern Wisconsin and the Cheese Palace, I found everything she wrote to be not only honest and non-belittling, I found it funny. Throughout the course of the trip, the characters will constantly refer back to the start of the trip through the t-shirts they purchased at the Palace, and it not only reroots them to the trip, but it reroots them to the crux of their storyline: are they friends or are they more than friends?
While their ultimate goal is to reach Portland, Oregon and find Penny — who they suspect to be there with a new boy — they don’t spare the road side attractions. Anyone who has done this trip knows some of the gems along the way: The House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisconsin; Blue Earth, Minnesota, home of the Jolly Green Giant; Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the Corn Palace; Wall, South Dakota, home of Wall Drug north of the interstate and the Badlands south of it; the whole of what you need to see in Wyoming; and so forth. What I love is how these iconic road stops aren’t belittled in the narrative, but the characters truly enjoy themselves. As they enjoy themselves in these places, as readers, we’re forced to consider the issues bubbling around them. Do we want them to become more than friends? Do we want them to find Penny and come to an end of the story?
Although this plot was richly fleshed, I found the secondary story with the disappearance of Penny to be considerably weaker and what ultimately made the book weaker than it could have been. She is, of course, the reason Lil gives to Josh for the road trip, even if it’s not necessarily what she believes in her heart (and she’ll say as much later in the story). But what bothered me was that there was an opportunity to develop this plot line stronger. Penny had an abusive boyfriend, and she also seemed to have developed a mysterious relationship on a vacation months earlier that led her to meet a boy in Portland after school ended. We get what are her journal entries at the end of each chapter — so as Lil and Josh progress on their trip, we’re sent back to Penny’s world. When Lil is contacted by the police and FBI about her knowledge pertaining to Penny’s disappearance, she is very nonchalant about it. She’s truly not interested in her friend’s well-being. All of this would work fine for me as a reader, as I believed that Lil truly just wanted an excuse to get on the road with Josh, but the inclusion of the journal entries took me out of that mindset. Penny’s story was interesting to me. I wanted to know more. I needed to know more. And Lil was too selfish to give it to me as a reader.
There are moments that required a considerable suspension of belief, particularly when it came to both Lil’s mother and Josh’s father. Neither cared a whole lot that their kids hit the road. But here’s the thing: it didn’t matter. I didn’t find myself worrying about their parents because they didn’t want me to dwell on it. This was their freedom, and they were taking it. I got enough of their family stories throughout the trip, and let me say — I’ve never once found a character I’ve connected with when it comes to a father-daughter relationships than Lil. I was right there with her as she talked about him, and my emotions were wrapped up completely in her words and beliefs about him and the value/impact he had on her as a person. I wanted to know more, but I was also relieved not to know more. It was hers to hold on to. And that made it all the more powerful.
Though the ending is a little tidy and I’m not sure I bought the relationship’s conclusion between Josh and Lil, I’m willing to forgive both because the road trip aspects were so well done. I appreciated the steady pacing of the story and the realistic time frame, as well. Both of those are essential elements in a story that involves movement.
This is the kind of book that will have wide appeal, and teens who loved stories like Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour will want to pick this one up. The story and tone are quirky in the same manner as Natalie Standiford’s books, so pass this off to fans of her books.
Advanced copy received from the publisher. Don’t Stop Now is available now.