Imagine being 16 and writing a best-selling novel and having your publishing house send you on a cross-country tour to promote the book. Sounds a little bit like a dream, but that’s what happens to Luke in Antony John’s Thou Shalt Not Road Trip.
Luke’s penned an inspirational novel about faith titled Hallelujah, and his tour kicks off in California, half a country away from his home town of St Louis, Missouri. Fortunately, he’s not going on tour alone — his older brother Matt is acting as his chauffeur. At his first tour stop, Luke is overwhelmed by the reception he and his book have received from so many people — what he thought of as simply a book about his journey toward understanding faith and coming to terms with his spirituality as a 16-year-old has touched the lives of many people, and they want him to know.
Oh, and then there’s Fran. Fran is Luke’s former best friend/crush/maybe former girlfriend. They haven’t talked in a long time. Things between them haven’t been peachy for a while. But surprise — she shows up to see him on tour and he finds out that she’ll be joining them on the tour, what looked like a fun experience has turned into a bit of a nightmare for Luke.
Maybe it’s unfair of me, but I was worried about reading this book. It tackles a topic I don’t care to read a whole lot about, which is spirituality and belief. That’s not to say it’s not an important topic, but it’s one I prefer not to spend a lot of time with. However, I was so wrong. What John did in this novel is far better than offer up a story about an enlightened teenager spreading his word about belief and faith. He’s written a novel about a teen boy who thinks he knows the meaning of faith and conviction, when in fact, he hasn’t the slightest clue. Not only that, but this book does a great job of balancing the serious issues with a lot of humor.
Luke’s a believable 16-year-old boy, aside from the mega book deal — but that’s where the humor is. The situation is outlandishly funny, as Luke’s sent on this publicity tour without as much as a publicist or a parent; instead, his college-age brother will be helping him along the way. Sure he can call his publicist, but he nor the publicist seem particularly interested in keeping in contact through a lot of the story. His spiritual memoir’s in its 5th printing, and he’s getting prominent display space in New York City book stores as further promotion. Although we know what his book is about, as readers, we’re on the outside of understanding who Luke is and where his beliefs really lie. That is, we know a lot about what makes him well-liked and respected, but we don’t get to experience it first-hand. This technique works quite well initially, as it allows us to discover that Luke’s not as put together as he seems. He’s imperfect.
When Fran enters the story, we learn from Luke that she’s a different person than she was the year before. Back then, she was on the straight and narrow, and she was the kind of girl who blended in at school. That’s what made Luke like her so much — she didn’t try to stand out or try to be anyone she wasn’t. But this last year, she’s dyed her hair a funky color and she’s become much different than she was before. It makes him uncomfortable, and his prejudice against her appearance causes him to drop Fran as a friend, leaving her without the sort of support system she needed. The sort of support that would have helped her feel good about herself when she needed it. And it’s in this break time that Luke pens his book and earns his acclaim.
Except Fran knows he’s a phony.
That’s the precise reason she’s decided to seek him out on his tour. Fran wants to confront him about what he did to her, how he abandoned her, and how it makes her feel. As much as this is a story about Fran seeking solace in what happened to them, it’s also a story about Luke’s continued feelings for her. As much as he dropped her, part of the reason he did it was because he was afraid to like someone so different from himself. Someone who wasn’t as spiritually enlightened as he believed himself to be. During the course of their cross-country trip, Luke learns there’s something much darker about Fran, too: she’s got a drinking problem. At this point, it’s clear how different their paths are and how far apart they’ve grown. But this trip? It’s much more than Luke’s publicity tour. It’s a chance for them to patch things up.
Dialog rings true to character and age in the book, though I had a bit of a hangup with back story. While we get the opportunity to know Luke and Fran in the current day, I didn’t feel like I got a good grasp on what caused the rift in their relationship earlier. There is a lot of unpacking baggage and coming to terms with the notions of faith and conviction, but because it’s set against what their relationship once was, I hoped to get a stronger sense of how the relationship once was. It’s there, but had it been sussed out a bit more, the payoff at the end of the story (as well as the moments of watching Fran break down) would have been more powerful.
Thou Shalt Not Road Trip will appeal to a lot of readers — the road trip aspect will work for readers who love those stories, but readers who like a good male lead character will find Luke authentic and easy to relate to, even with the mega best seller thrown in. This one will work really well for readers who do like stories about faith and spiritual belief, as it’s both about testing those convictions and coming to understand the implications and meanings behind them. Readers who have hit every book in Christian fiction or who want a story that traverses some of those themes without being a certain type of Christian story will find there is much to be enjoyed here. I hesitated in writing a recommendation like that because John skillfully writes a story that will work for those who have absolutely no interest in that kind of story, too — there’s a lot to be enjoyed in the relationship between two brothers in the book, as well, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of strong brother stories out there. It’s a book that’s easy to hand to a wide array of readers.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Thou Shalt Not Road Trip will be available April 12.
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).