Monday, August 08, 2011

Mapping out your relationship highway style...

Don’t Stop Now by Julie Halpern:

On the first day of Lillian’s summer-before-college, she gets a message on her cell from her sort-of friend, Penny. Not only has Penny faked her own kidnapping, but Lil is the only one who figures it out. She knows that Penny’s home life has been rough, and that her boyfriend may be abusive. Soon, Penny’s family, the local police, and even the FBI are grilling Lil, and she decides to head out to Oregon, where Penny has mentioned an acquaintance. And who better to road-trip across the country with than Lil’s BFF, Josh. But here’s the thing: Lil loves Josh. And Josh doesn’t want to “ruin” their amazing friendship.

Josh has a car and his dad’s credit card. Lil has her cell phone and a hunch about where Penny is hiding. There’s something else she needs to find: Are she and Josh meant to be together?

Summary from GoodReads.

Lillian wakes up the morning after her last day of high school (ever!) to a mysterious voice mail from her default friend, Penny. Although it’s just three words long – “I did it.” – the message is enough to trigger a foggy memory of Penny planning her own kidnapping. Fake kidnappings are just too much trouble to handle alone – which basically sums up Lil & Penny’s entire relationship – so Lil calls in reinforcements: her real best friend, Josh. Aka the boy who is the definition of unrequited love interest.

Lil and Josh go together like peanut butter and jelly, complete with a general “screw those people with nut allergies” attitude, so (unsurprisingly) upon learning of the adventures of one bad Penny, Josh hits upon the perfect solution.

Can we say road trip?

Armed with vague memories of Penny’s destination and a strong desire to avoid FBI interrogation, Josh and Lil leave Chicago for the open road, destination: Portland, Oregon. Along the way they’ll stop to see the more absurd of the road side attractions and explore that spark that always makes them seem more than friends. By the time they reach Portland, will they have reached a new stage in their relationship as well?

Lil and Josh are very, very clearly teenagers and entitled ones at that. With few familial or economic responsibilities , they can just take off. Armed with Josh’s Dad’s credit card and the semi-reliability of his A/C-less van, they are beholden to nothing other than their own questions. Will this road trip help them find Penny? And more importantly will it answer the questions Lil has always had regarding the possibility of upgrading Josh from best friend to boyfriend?

By sending Josh and Lil on a road trip, Halpern is able to intensely focus on their actions, interaction and reactions. Whether or not Lil will forever be stuck in the friend zone (or even if it is better for her there) is what drives the plot and our understanding of Lil and Josh together. The only outside perspective she supplies comes from Penny’s diary entries.

These diary entries both help and hurt Lil and Josh as characters. We get to experience how Penny perceives them – the ultimate couple whose coupling she doesn’t quite understand the dynamics of, but whose support of one another goes unquestioned.  This is in clear contrast to Penny’s own abusive romantic relationship and her broken family ties. Thanks to these diary entries, I as the reader could see why Penny had gone to such extremes, whereas Josh and Lil have only their impressions of Penny to go on. Still their ignorance in light of her behavior is hard to witness. Even at the very end when Lil confronts Penny about the kidnapping, she cut’s off the other girl’s explanation of why.

While I know – and the story takes great pains to point out – that Lil viewed Penny as a pity friend, I had a hard time accepting this part of Lil’s character. And the reason has to do with the fact that outside of Josh we never really hear about anyone else in Lil’s life. The reader never gets to see Lil interact with another female character (real friend-wise) because she is so wrapped up in Josh that no one else appears to matter.

Very teenager-y? Yes. And maybe Lil is just one of those girls that enjoy the company of men over women. But there was a certain level of insularity to both her and Josh’s character to kept me from loving them whole-heartedly despite the great rapid dialog, crazy landmarks, and the will they or won’t they romantic tension.

Without the Penny drama, Don’t Stop Now is a light road trip tale of best friends trying to define their relationship – whatever that is – before they pass on into full adulthood and all the requirements and restrictions that come with the title. When viewed through a teen viewfinder, we get to explore the friendship zone with two people full of charm and adventure. Whether these things will transition with them to the next stage of life is what Lil and Josh are trying to discover. In fact, had Penny not been part of this, I think I would have been unfazed by Lil and Josh’s flakier moments. Sadly, I’ve known too many Penny’s this affects my judgment of their reactions to her situation.

Despite this, I did enjoy learning about their different stops along the way. I even learned something new about Portland (I’d never been to/or heard of the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House) that I will have to check out. This does lead me to one correction in the text though. While in the Church of Elvis, Lil observes someone giving them the devil sign for talking to loud:

“Can we get out of here?” I ask Penny. “That woman is giving us the evil eye,” which she is, literally, by staring at us and pointing the devil hand sign in our direction.
-page 213 of Don’t Stop Now.

Guys, that’s not the devil sign! It’s the quiet coyote, the hand symbol used by teachers in classrooms and school assemblies to bring order and silence…as well as the occasional smart-ass howl.* (I’m told by high school teachers it doesn’t work so well for them. )

Even zoos have heard of it:

The inclusion of the quiet coyote, although it was unknowing, made my day. For that scene alone I have told three people about this book.

I picked up Don’t Stop Now because it sounded like a fun “will they or won’t they” novel with the added bonus of some Portland landmarks. In the end, I found that my reservations regarding Penny’s situation and Lil and Josh’s attitude toward that situation dimmed my overall enjoyment slightly. Maybe it’s a sign of my age that I wanted a little more from these characters. Still, this won’t keep me from picking up Halpern’s other titles if my mood and the library’s hold system are in alignment.

Recommended for fans of road trips and the best friends turned lovers trope (or at least an exploration of some of its aspects). Like movie theater popcorn Don’t Stop Now will either be the perfect accompaniment to a summer day or leave you with a hangover from the butter high.

You can purchase Don’t Stop Now from these fine retailers: Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Your Local Indie, or you can pick it up at your local library.

*This in itself is amusing because anyone who lives in a rural area with a coyote population will tell you that they are often anything but quiet. It took me many years after I moved out of my parent’s house to get used to going to sleep without their howling.

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