These books don’t really have anything to do with one another, except that they’re both contemporary titles, both feature a male and female lead character, and both are written by debut authors.
Except, of course, that can’t happen. Both Zoe and Will can’t simply shed their past. It’s part of who they are, and it impacts their decisions and reactions to one another’s decisions. And this is where the story becomes strong: one character will continue to see the past as their defining present and the other will choose to not let their past define them and instead, use it as guidance to make the hardest choice they’ve had to make.
This book reminded me so much of Heidi Ayarbe’s Wanted — the setting, the troubled and painful pasts of the characters, and the escape from home are all similar. Halbrook’s writing is gorgeous; the moments of tenderness are as searing and brutal as those moments of insecurity and vulnerability. Not to mention the moments that are panic-inducing for both the characters and the reader. Yes, both of these characters at times make terrible decisions, but their initial decision to run away sets up the story to showcase their poor choice-making skills. But these aren’t choices either Will nor Zoe make lightly. They’re honestly driven to make a better life for themselves and being they’re so young, they’re going to figure it out in very teenage ways.
Both Zoe and Will are fully-fleshed and interesting characters. While both come from troubled backgrounds, it’s not an angst-ridden story. These characters are determined to grow and to change; however, only one really and truly is able to do so. That doesn’t mean the other doesn’t have a full arc, though. It’s just different.
I don’t know if I see this as a great read alike to If I Stay, which is one of the titles it’s pitched like. This is a very character-driven novel, and while there is romance, it’s not in the same manner that Forman’s book portrays. I’d say it’s going to appeal to fans of Heidi Ayarbe and Kody Keplinger (particularly A Midsummer’s Nightmare). I also see fans of Nina LaCour digging this one, especially if they liked The Disenchantments and how the road trip line worked in that book. This is a solid and strong debut from Halbrook.
The book takes place in rural Maine in the winter. The bleak setting is a strong backdrop to the story itself, which at heart sounds like it’s uplifting. But that’s superficial (sort of like the idea of rural Maine in winter). Skint’s life is anything but happy. His father suffers from early onset dementia, and his mother is unable to be patient and understanding any longer. Dinah and her desire to be helpful, to be good in the world around her, is unable, though, to be there for Skint. Except, of course, she IS there for him and in the way he really needs. It’s just that the consequences of her actions completely shift his world in unimaginable ways.
Kirkus called this a highly stylized novel, and I think that’s the perfect description. It’s told through third person, and it shifts from focusing on Dinah to periodically focusing on Skint, and these shifts are not only jarring, but because the reader is so far removed from the characters, it’s hard to understand their emotional complexities. It comes through only in dialog. There’s little action to propel any of the story forward. In other words, the choice in story telling style impacts the way the story moves — this is a character-driven novel but because the characters are so removed from the reader, it is tough to feel the full impact of the story itself. I wanted more insight into what was going on in their minds, into what they were feeling when they were feeling it. I felt like the full impact of just how good Dinah wanted to be was lost because we don’t see her yearning or aching for that except through dialog (she talks about it a lot, but she doesn’t get the opportunity to ruminate on it for us internally). More than that, though, I wanted to know more about how pained Skint was following Dinah’s actions. We know what he does after she reacts. But we don’t ever get to truly know how he felt.
The biggest strength is that Griffin is able to offer a true portrait of rural life and the ways that members of a community like the one here are all interconnected — and completely not connected — at the same time. At times, this reminded me a little bit of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park because of the dynamics between Dinah and Skiny and how both characters brought significant baggage to the relationship. That baggage, of course, helped solidify their relationship. But there’s not a romance here. It’s just a close and strong friendship between two characters. This is a fine read, but it’s probably not among the most memorable.
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).