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Sunday, June 6, 2010

'A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend' by Emily HORNER

Received from the publisher

From the BLURB:

Cass and her drama-crazy best friend, Julia, were planning a road trip to California. When Julia is killed in a car accident, Cass decides to follow the original plan anyway. Even if she has a bicycle instead of a driver’s licence, and even if Julia’s ashes are coming along in Tupperware.

This is a story about friendship. About love. About travelling a thousand miles just to find yourself. And it’s a story about the kookiest high school musical one quiet suburb has even seen.

This is Emily Horner’s debut YA novel.

The narrative swings between ‘Now’ and ‘Then’. The now is Cass back at school after her road-tripping absence, trying to fit back in with her friends who she never felt particularly ‘friendly’ with. The ‘Then’ is Cass’s bike-trip to California with Julia’s ashes in a Tupperware container along for the ride.

The title is brilliant – ‘A Love Story Starring my Dead Best Friend’ – it really jumps out at you, and is the sort of title that you’d stop and take notice of when browsing at the bookstore. I also loved the title of Julia’s high school play; ‘Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad’.
But the same way a film trailer can be the best part of a movie, so too can an eye-grabbing title be the only highlight of a novel. Such is the case with Horner’s debut.

I think what the novel lacks is something that’s quite hard to write. It’s that ‘joie de vivre’, pizzazz and charisma that some people just *have* in spades, oozing out their pores. The title has it – a combination of macabre and playful, a hint of wry witticism and dark humour – but Horner’s actual writing is lacking in what the title promises. The book itself swings between being depressing and hopeful – with not much humour in between. It’s a shame, both because the title hints at a mix of death and humour, and because humour is such an obvious by-product of grief. But Cass isn’t particularly funny, she’s actually quite dull. Not even her drama nerd friends have much flavour to them – no matter how much Horner insists that gay drama boy, Jon, is ‘fabulous’.

I said humour is an obvious by-product of grief. I’m thinking of Jonathan Tropper’s ‘How to Talk to a Widower’ as a shining example. An adult book, true, but Tropper understands what Horner doesn’t seem to – that at some point you get so sick of being sad that you’ve just got to laugh. And you can’t go on remembering who you lost, but what you had – you remember the good times, the happy times, the stupid stunts and hilarious exploits. That’s what is missing from ‘A Love Story’. It doesn’t help that the best thing about Cass was Julia – her out-going, funny and loyal best friend. Cass herself is a wallflower, not particularly funny or self-aware and quite a laborious narrator.

At times Horner’s novel also feels a bit like a prescribed text. As though she’s writing what she thinks a YA ‘coming of age’ novel should be – complete with a ‘just find yourself’ line in the blurb. It does feel as though she was writing through a checklist of inspirational and motivational moments for her character to experience. Having been a Young Adult not so long ago (and still considered one in some target audiences) I think YA readers are a bit savvier these days. They like a less ‘squeaky clean’ moralistic message and prefer something more nitty-gritty, with a bit of an edge and more shades of grey.

I think Horner’s writing leans a bit more toward the unconventional and less PG-13 in regards to Cass’s romance. As the story in ‘Now’ progresses, Cass develops feelings for her previous arch-nemesis, Heather. She was the girl who made Cass’s school life hell; the girl who called Cass ‘dyke’ in front of everyone and took over Julia’s role in the play. I really loved the development of Cass & Heather, for the very reason that the rest of the novel didn’t work for me, Heather & Cass did. I liked the fact that Horner wrote a less conventional lesbian romance for her protagonist, even more so that Heather was once Cass’s bully.

Towards the end the pace picks up because Cass’s blooming romance with Heather becomes the focus. And through that romance Cass is able to find her place in the world, without Julia. I actually learnt more about Cass and saw more healing in her because of Heather than I ever did reading her road-trip.

She shook her head. “I was scribbling your name in my notebook and then blacking it out with a marker, and I was so sure that you were fine, you were okay, you didn’t have problems like I did, and I sort of hated you for it. But the you who is in my heart and in my memory, who I had a ridiculous crush on, who I’m still a bit angry at, never really existed in the first place. It’s got nothing to do with the real you. So -” She smiled regretfully. “You can tell I've thought about this way too much trying to pretend it’s not a bad idea.”

I just plain loved Cass and Heather. Not only are they contending with the High School politics associated with ‘coming out’, but they have a nasty past and Cass’s grief to deal with. But they had a very real, very tender blooming romance that was wonderful to get caught up in. There was one scene involving Heather serenading to Cass with her clarinet that had me choking up a little bit.

It is in writing the romance that Horner really shines. She treats Cass's exploration of her sexual identity with finesse and tenderness, at once compelling and thoughtful. Horner really shines in the second-half of her book - so much so that Cass and Heather's budding romance could easily have been the only plot focus.

This is a tricky book to rate. I really hated the beginning, and almost gave up reading a few times. But toward the end Horner seemed to find her groove and I really enjoyed Cass & Heather’s love story.


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