Last year I met Felton Reinstein in Stupid Fast and fell madly in love with his character. Then, of course, Herbach’s book went on to win the Cybils award in YA fiction. The combination of a great male lead who was able to tackle the tough issues of family, love, small town life, and friendship with humor and with depth stood out. So when I heard there was a continuation of the story, I was beyond excited. And Nothing Special lives up.
After we left Felton in Stupid Fast, he was making a name for himself, and now, he’s being recruited by some of the top colleges in the country for his athletic prowess. It’s stressing him out — as it would — because he wants to make sure he’s making the right choice. If the attention he garnered last year made him crazy, the attention he’s getting on the national level now is making him downright insane.
Things at home aren’t as bad as they were last year, but they’re also not exactly great. Especially when Andrew, his brother, goes missing. Turns out Andrew’s taken an impromptu trip to Florida and now Felton has to go rescue him and bring him back home. Without his mother finding out. He pulls off this wild road trip in a strikingly similar way his brother pulled it off: with a few little lies to his mother about where he was going for a week. Whereas Andrew said he was heading to a camp in northern Wisconsin, Felton tells his mom he’s heading to a recruitment camp in another state. And Jerri, their mother who has never quite had herself together, buys the story. It’s then Felton sets off to Florida with Gus. Gus who used to be his best friend. Gus who now Felton feels he has little or nothing in common with anymore.
Let me back up a second and explain how the book is set up. It’s a letter to Aleah, Felton’s girlfriend/not a girlfriend, and it’s written at the end of the summer between airport trips down to Florida. He’s explaining the road trip with Gus in the past, since it had already happened. By framing the story this way, Herbach not only leaves readers wondering where Felton is heading now, but he complicates it further by making us wonder what happened between the initial road trip and the flights because in both instances, we know Felton’s going to Florida. This works well not only because it pushes the story forward but also because it mirrors how the first story was set up. We know Felton’s the kind of guy who needs to work his problems out by paper. It would be inauthentic to his character for this to be a straightforward narrative.
Nothing Special is Felton’s story, but it’s just as much about Andrew, even though he doesn’t once have an opportunity to tell. We’re wondering right along with Felton why his brother skipped town and lied about it, and as he pieces together the story, we start to get a real image of who Andrew is and why he would make this decision.
If your brother were getting so much attention at home, you wouldn’t blame Andrew, either. If you were constantly living in the shadow of a guy being recruited by so many big name schools, you would look for a place where you could earn some attention. But Andrew’s reason for his trip to Florida are much more than about finding a place where he could stand out and be special. It’s about reconnecting with his family. With family who his mother has essentially divorced herself from and never told her boys about. If you’ll remember in the first book, Felton helps reconnect with a long long family member, this is what is going to happen through Andrew. Except — and maybe this is pretty bold — I think Andrew’s much more successful in his quest and helps both himself and Felton reconsider what it means to be family and to love one another.
The family relationships and family dynamics in this story ring true. Where I could see some readers suggesting that maybe there’s too much mess in Felton’s family, I buy every moment of this story. Families are tricky things. It’s not always clear where people stand with one another, despite being connected by genetics. I’m not sure in the end that things are resolved, either, and that’s a huge part of what figuring out family is all about. It constantly shifts and changes and it’s not always comfortable. At times, I found myself getting a little welled up because Felton’s experiences with family hit close to him. Fortunately, Felton’s trademark humor brings levity to the situations he works through. They don’t become heavy issues nor do they become messages or lessons to learn. They just are.
Herbach’s writing is easy to read and he nails voice. Felton still remains one of the most authentic males I’ve read in YA. He had feelings and thoughts, but he doesn’t necessarily act upon them in the most logical manner nor in the way we would want him to. He makes mistakes and he does stupid things. But he has to in order to get to the heart of things. He’s selfish and self-absorbed, but it doesn’t make him the kind of character you dislike because of it. Instead, he’s able to gain the reader’s interest and sympathy because of these qualities. The thing is, you know deep down he is a great guy and he knows deep down he’s a great guy too.
As much as this is a story about family, Nothing Special is also a story about friendship and about love. Where Felton found himself lost without Gus the summer before, he’s learning that maybe he and Gus aren’t meant to be the kind of friends who stick together to the end. Relationships are dynamic, ever-shifting things, and Felton learns to deal with this head on while in the car with Gus. They’ve both changed and their lives are going separate ways. Part of it has to do with Felton’s character and his selfishness, but part of the blame lies squarely on Gus for the same reasons. Then there’s Aleah. We know this entire story is a letter to Aleah, but what makes it more powerful is knowing how much of himself Felton gives her through it. He’s raw and broken, and he is absolutely unafraid of being that way with her, even if he’s not entirely sure of what their future together is. That Felton has this sort of person in his life made me cheer because, even if she’s not right there with him in person, she’s there with him in the way he really needs her. She’s there to listen.
As soon as I finished the book, I wrote down a quote that stuck with me and that I think nails Felton’s character and his story: “If you act out of love, whatever you do is both perfect and right. It doesn’t matter if you’re a deep thinker or a squirrel nut if you act out of love. Crap starts getting seriously screwed if something else gets in the way, something like fear or revenge or even victory or being famous or some other dumb thing. The only thing we need to do is figure out what we really love.” Even though things suck sometimes, even if things suck a lot of the time, and even if things make no sense whatsoever when they’re happening, all that matters is acting out of love. Felton, for all his faults, is ultimately a likable because as readers, we know this is precisely why he does the things he does.
Nothing Special will appeal to the same readers who fell in love with the first book, and while it’s possible to read this one without having read Stupid Fast, I wouldn’t recommend it. To come to the conclusions Felton does, readers need to stick with him throughout. My only qualms with this story are that at times it feels it runs a little long and at times it takes on a lot of heavy issues at once. It’s not that they’re not relevant or important to the story, but it can feel a bit overwhelming to the reader. Herbach, though, has a gift for voice, and I am beyond excited to see what sort of story he offers next. If you like funny, thoughtful, and authentic male characters, this book and its predecessor are essential reads.
Review copy received from the publisher. Nothing Special is available now.