Happy Saturday, guys!
So... I feel bad for not liking this book. I really enjoyed Kim's last book, and was intrigued by this one.
While I feel like she had some great points and observations on the social stressors suffered by teenagers these days, I ultimately felt like the plot execution was too shallow to get actual depth or insight into Mara's struggles.
Expected publication: January 26th 2016 by Point
Format read: ARC via publisher
Mara knows she should go back, but suddenly she doesn't know why she's been overachieving all these years. Impulsively, she tells her mom she wants to go live with her estranged dad in Tahoe. Maybe in a place like Tahoe, where people go to get away from everyday life, and wiht a dad like Trick McHale, a ski bum avoiding the real world, Mara can figure things out.
Only Tahoe is nothing like she thought. There are awesome new friends and hot boys and a chance to finally get to know Trick, but there are also still massive amounts of schoolwork. Can Mara stopping planning long enough to see the life that's happening right now?
As someone who went to a competitive high school, I saw more than my fair share of academic-incurred meltdowns, similar to Mara’s. So I am all in favor of books that teach teens how to find a healthy balance between academics and having a social life.
But where I think …Now struggles, is through Culbertson’s execution. We’re presented with a compelling set-up: Mara has a public meltdown during an exam, which is recorded, posted online and goes viral. As a result, Mara feels like the only alternative is for her to temporarily move in with her estranged father in the seemingly relaxed (and anonymous!) atmosphere of Lake Tahoe.
But Mara quickly learns that life isn’t perfect even in Tahoe, and both her father and newfound friends have extreme challenges of their own. Mara now has to figure out how to find her own happy balance, and what she wants out of life, both academic and personal.
Compelling, right? Especially when set against the backdrop of winter sports, cute boys and a beautiful setting?
Well, yes and no.
From the get-go, Culbertson does a spectacular job of showing the frazzled realities of a teen who has fallen prey to the exposed, unrelenting atmosphere of competitive academics and of social media. Mara’s horror upon realizing that thousands of people have seen her melt down, and her fear that it’s the only thing that will define her now, is a real and relatable one.
Her newfound friends Isabel, Logan and Beck are good distractions, but Culbertson smartly reminds us as the story progresses, that their lives – different as they may seem from Mara’s – have stressors of their own.
But with that proper set-up out of the way, the book basically zooms through any semblance of character or plot development. Mara’s life is basically on fast forward: we get hints of her struggling with homework; wanting to ski rather than do homework; getting mad at her dad Trick for being estranged, and caught in the inevitable love triangle between Beck and Logan.
(But even that’s over so fast; the triangle is basically resolved even before it had really begun.)
Along the way, Culbertson throws in some nicely worded sentiments, including a beautiful tangent from new friend Isabel about the United States of Do It My Way culture in Tahoe, and a sage reminder from a surprising new friend that the collective attention span of the Internet is a short one.
But ultimately, Culbertson’s sentiments only remain just that. We understand that they’re bits of wisdom that impact Mara’s purview, but we’re never really given the opportunity to see how they work at a deeper level. We don’t see how they shape Mara’s understanding of herself or what she’s gone through, and how she’s going to conquer future stressful situations.
Part of that is like due to the relatively isolated setting, as it’s hard to expand on something when you basically only have five other people for your main character to interact with. But part of that is also due to the book’s lack of overall depth.
E.g. Mara decides to confront Trick, her estranged father, for not making an effort to connect with her. The blow-up is abrupt; the resolution even more so.
Though the reasoning for lack of said connection and the resolution are all dutifully presented, it ultimately just feels unfinished. And while Trick makes a point that helps further Mara’s personal development, the lack of any depth in their relationship, makes her whole point in going to Tahoe in the first place, feel very unresolved.
Throw in an additional subplot where Mara basically decides that her approach to handling stressors in her life is to resolve not to get perfect grades - which is understandable, but also not presented in the best tone - and it feels like she hasn't necessarily learned how to truly handle her life for future stressors. Just to live in the now.
Ultimately, while Mara may feel happy in the end, I’m not sure the reader will feel the same. She may learn to live in the Now, but somewhat at the expense of real development.
However, I still couldn’t help but feel that there was something missing from Mara’s overall journey. Though I appreciated the fact that she had a cathartic stay that led to a better understanding of who she is as a person, it all just seemed a little too easy for me.
One or two meaningful conversations with friends, a few kisses and a few emotional reveals (with a slight emergency thrown in for good measure), does not equate to emotional enlightenment for me, and ultimately took away from my satisfaction with Mara’s overall character development.
While I think that some readers will appreciate Mara’s eventual conclusion that it’s important to find balance and live for what works for you, I’m just not sure that this book worked for me. I would recommend it to fans of contemporary readers, with the caveat that real life, especially teenaged life, is far, far more complicated than this.
About the author:
Kim Culbertson is the author of Catch a Falling Star; Instructions for a Broken Heart, a Northern California Book Award winner; and Songs for a Teenage Nomad. When sheÆs not writing young adult novels, she teaches high school creative writing. Kim lives with her husband and their daughter in Northern California. For more about Kim, visit www.kimculbertson.com.