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Friday, March 7, 2014

‘My Life Next Door’ by Huntley Fitzpatrick


From the BLURB:

"One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time."

The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, messy, affectionate. And every day from her rooftop perch, Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs up next to her and changes everything.

As the two fall fiercely for each other, stumbling through the awkwardness and awesomeness of first love, Jase's family embraces Samantha - even as she keeps him a secret from her own. Then something unthinkable happens, and the bottom drops out of Samantha's world. She's suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

A transporting debut about family, friendship, first romance, and how to be true to one person you love without betraying another.

Samantha Reed has always been fascinated by the Garrett’s, who live next door. Her own father left when she was a baby, and her sister Tracy was only a toddler, leaving her mum to raise them alone in a big, imposing house with perpetually vacuumed carpets and fresh-made lemonade always in the fridge. 

By contrast, the Garrett’s are a large family who always seem to have a baby just born or on the way. Mr and Mrs Garrett are always kissing one another in their backyard, and all the siblings seem to lead vastly different lives while being close-knit. 

Samantha knows all this because she watches them – the Garrett’s – “those Garretts”, as her mother calls them. She’s fascinated by their lovely, messy lives that she watches from a distance … until the day one of them approaches her. Jase is the second oldest, with a beautiful smile and generous soul. Over one summer Samantha gets closer and closer to him, and his generous family.

But this is also the summer that Sam’s mother goes into over-drive trying to win the town elections, going so far as to bring in a Washington big-wig to call the shots for her suddenly very conservative campaign. It’s the summer that Sam and her best friend Nan decide they have to save Nan’s brother, Tim, from himself. And it’s the summer that Sam falls in love for the first time … and has to choose between family and morality, right and wrong.

‘My Life Next Door’ was the 2013 debut young adult novel from Huntley Fitzpatrick.

Oh my gosh; I’ve been hearing a lot about this book! For a little while there it was all anyone could talk about, and I saw this cover popping up on numerous book review blogs … which pretty much guaranteed that I’d wait for the hype to die down before seeing for myself what all the fuss was about. And, while I do get it, I’ve got to say I wasn’t as swept up in this book as so many other people seemed to be.

Fitzpatrick, I will say, is very good at setting the scene. We have Samantha settling in for a long, boring summer with her sister Tracy vacationing with her latest tennis-player boyfriend, and Sam either stuck at home or one of her two jobs while her mother goes into over-drive with her new political campaign. Sam’s friends also seem set to abandon her for the summer – Nan is studying hard in preparation for college selections, and Nan’s older brother Tim (once Sam’s closest friend) has been kicked out of school and seems on his way to trouble, getting high every day and losing every job within a week of starting. 

Sam seems a lonely sort of girl – having been raised by a single mother who never seemed very at ease in the parental role, Sam’s mum is cleaning obsessed (verging on OCD) and now career-driven since being elected to local council. Here, Fitzpatrick lays a wonderful contrast to Sam’s solitary life in a big, clean house – with the Garrett’s who live next door in constant chaos, and with so many children that strangers often comment that they “must be Catholic” (they’re not, Mrs Garrett just loves babies). Sam has long been fascinated by the Garrett’s who live next door, because she has a perfect view of their backyard from her bedroom window perch.

The first half of this (rather long, at 394-pages) book is all about Sam entering into the world of the Garrett’s, having been introduced by second oldest boy, Jase. And this is a lovely introduction to this family that Fitzpatrick writes with tender comedy, particularly around the toddlers of the clan; 

“Is Jase already going to marry you?" 
I start coughing again. "Uh. No. No, George. I'm only seventeen." As if that's the only reason we aren't engaged. 
"I'm this many," George holds up four slightly grubby fingers. "Jase is seventeen and a half. You could. Then you could live in here with him. And have a big family." Jase strides back into the room, of course, midway through this proposition. 
"George. Beat it. Discovery Channel is on." 
George backs out of the room, but not before saying, "His bed's really comfortable. And he never pees in it." 
The door closes and we both start laughing.

I enjoyed getting to know the Garrett’s as much as Sam does, truly. They’re a delightful family, although I was a fair way into the book when I started wondering what, exactly, made them so interesting? … They don’t exactly present conflict. Big they may be, but they’re a very functional and loving family who don’t seem to have cares beyond an annoyance for perfect strangers commenting on their sheer size (and questioning why Mr and Mrs Garrett don’t stop with the baby-making). Sure, there’s oldest sister Alice who’s studying nursing and has a reputation as a heart-breaker. Joel is the oldest brother who rides a motorcycle and has scored a full sport scholarship. But we spend so much time seeing the Garrett’s through Sam’s eyes, and beyond understanding why they hold so much fascination for *her*, as a reader I didn’t really know where the story was going with them as the focus…

On the other hand, Sam’s life is full of drama. There’s her ex-best friend Tim who has suddenly gone off the rails and can’t seem to find his feet, no matter how much everyone tries to help him. He’s witty and bitter, heaping out doses of sarcasm that belies how really scared he is to be this directionless. I thought he was wonderful and intriguing, and I’m so glad Fitzpatrick has a book coming out based around Tim, called ‘The Boy Most Likely To’ set for 2015 release.

“Why do all the hot girls want the jocks and the good boys? We losers are the ones that need you.” 

Then there’s Nan – a real stress head who is concerned by her college prospects and her brother’s welfare, and whose friendship with Sam starts to warp when some harsh truths and jealousies are revealed.

There’s also Sam’s mum, who is campaigning for re-election with the help of a sleazy (younger) Washington man who seems to have cast a spell on her. Suddenly Sam’s mum is scary-driven, and her conservative politics are starting to concern Sam – from her stance on migrants to same-sex marriage. I would have actually liked more about how clashing ideals between Sam and her mum was impacting their relationship … but what’s offered with this story is strong enough as is, and had me fascinated.

By contrast, the Garrett’s are just sort of – there. Sure, Jase is lovely and Fitzpatrick certainly scores points for writing a tender romance for Sam, complete with realistic sexual encounters. But where’s the interest with this family?

… And then just as I was thinking that, something shifts in the second-half of the book. It actually read like Fitzpatrick realised she was writing this lovely, ho-hum book about a girl who becomes entwined with this big, happy family next door, and while that’s great, it does not an interesting story make, so she decided to BAM! throw some serious obstacles in the way. It read a bit outlandish to me, and was a jarring contrast between the first and second halves of the book. 

All in all, I thought this was a nice story. The Garrett’s are nice, Sam is nice and her romance with Jase was nice. But the real meat of the plot for me came from Sam’s relationship with her mum and secondary character Tim’s battles with himself. The sudden plot about-turn in the second half certainly read like someone who realised her story up until then had been fairly ‘nice’ but uneventful. I’ll definitely read Tim’s story, ‘The Boy Most Likely To’ but ‘My Life Next Door’ was only okay for me, nothing groundbreaking.

2.5/5


5 comments:

  1. I have had this book highly recommended to me but haven't yet read it. Interesting to see the reasons why you were less than enthusiastic about it.

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    1. Yes, this one came highly recommended to me too, but I normally like to wait until hype dies down so I can read with minimal expectation.

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  2. I've seen such overwhelming love for this book that it's actually nice to read a more balanced review. I've been blindsided by sudden BAM! NOW LET THERE BE DRAMA surprises in books recently too, so it's good to be prepared for that in this book. It's interesting to hear your take on the family dynamics, because that's usually what people praise when they speak of it.

    Still interested in reading it, but I'll keep my expectations in check. Thanks for the review, lovely Danielle!

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

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    1. Yes! There is an entire sub-genre of books that throw out SURPRISING CURVEBALLS, often completely changing the tone of the second-half of the book ... although sometimes that works (I'm thinking, 'Looking for Alaska')

      Glad you liked the review, and definitely go into this book with lowered expectations ;)

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  3. Oh, definitely give this a try if you were already interested in picking it up! It’s lots of fun for sure, and even though there’s some over the top drama at the end, I think it’s still realistic and honest.

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