out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down
in that grass, the world
is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even
There's a certain kind of hero(ine) which is catnip to a certain kind of (hero)ine. The wounded warrior. The one who has given country, family, liege lord and king his or her best shot, and then life spits them back all cut up. And then the hero(ine)-worshiping protagonist is lured in by the siren sound of their stoic, silent pain... and gets all tangled up in them, and somehow fixes them, and the HEA credits roll.
Catnip, I tell you. Beauty and the Beast is a classic "for instance" of this genre. You have a tale of a ruined man...er...beastie thing, and Belle comes along and he's made whole, literally and figuratively. It is one of the most seductive (and dangerous) tales in all the land of Romance. And it works. Every. single. darned. time.
Summary: Skylar Evans' mother has worked at Taco Bell in the Central Valley for eighteen years. When Skylar was twelve, her father died, driving drunk. After the year her mother spent weeping and drunk, and she spent hungry, scared, and coping, Skylar promised herself she would never, ever, ever drink herself. That's what people do, in Creek View. Drink. Drink some more. Try to forget the world in which they're stuck. Unfortunately, Skylar's female bestie, Dylan, has already succumbed to the siren call of what every other girl does in Creek View - go to high school, get knocked up, stay in the same low-rent, no-skills, no future life that everyone else has. Baby Sean is adorable, but he's no ticket out of the trailer park, that's for sure. Fortunately, the third point in Skylar and Dylan's friend group, Chris, has another future in mind, one where his father doesn't have to break his back in the fields, one where his mother can sit back and not work at a minimum wage job for the rest of her life. Chris has goals, and Skylar is right behind him. She messed up a tiny bit, once, but she believes in The Pact. It's the promise they made to each other - they're getting the hell out of Creek View, and they're not looking back. Once, Josh Mitchell had had a ticket out of Creek View, too. His ticket was punched in Afghanistan, however, and nothing will bring back his friends, the sense of having the world at his fingertips -- or his leg. What's left seems to be Creek View - his nagging mother - and drinking himself blind to blunt the nightmares. He's on leave - has a decision to make about going back to the Marines - or going forward without them. If it wasn't for his job at the Paradise, he'd have nothing to hold him to Creek View, nothing at all... but now there's ...something. Someone. And graduation is over. All that stands between Skylar and getting free forever is one. last. summer. Like she always does, she works the front desk for Marge at the Paradise, checking in clients, cleaning rooms, and trying to stay in the pool long enough for the days to pass by. She makes art, she dreams of San Francisco, and makes friends with Josh Mitchell, a familiar stranger who once was someone she thought she understood pretty well. And then her mother loses her job, and Skylar can see the future that she's worked for and all that she's dreamed of... going up in smoke.
Peaks: As I read this novel, I was reminded forcibly of all the things I like about good realistic fiction, and those authors - Sarah Dessen among them - who are its most talented practitioners. In this novel there is some adept characterization, emotional resonance and an arresting inner mind. I also appreciated the realism of the Central Valley of California. It was eerily like watching all my friends from Lodi to Fresno grow up all over again. All they ever seemed to do was stupid stuff like dirt bike racing in orchards with no headlights, chasing roosters, hanging out in tailgate parties in vineyards partying, drinking - and dying in car accidents, too young.
Demetrios has a particular understanding of the military, and marvels that there are so few YA novels which are written about the teens who enlist. What she doesn't discuss is that there's a reason for that - the overwhelming number of YA novels are written about the lives of wealthy-to-upper-middle class teens, not blue-collar working class teens or working poor or poverty-level teens - and these are the individuals for whom enlisting at seventeen or eighteen is more common. Readers seeking more novels with military characters are finding them, however. (Of those listed, Wonderland can only say we've read JELLICOE ROAD.)
Valleys: This being a fairly polished piece of realistic fiction, the potholes on the road to real are perhaps more spackled over than necessary. Skylar manages to have a Latino best friend, and seems to avoid altogether issues of culture or identity in small town, rural central California. There are no class issues - not that there have to be issues, per se, but the character doesn't even seem to see them or think of them, which seems farfetched to me - but this won't diminish the enjoyment of most readers.
The best novels are the ones which show characters evolving as the book unfolds. Josh Mitchell was a bigoted, intolerant, sleeping-with-it-if-it-moves, hard-drinking, school blowing off loser who went into the military. He came home, and because he's injured, it seems that we're supposed to accept him slinging slurs like "faggot" around unapologetically or saying that things are "so gay" as acceptable because ...injury. Nobility. Former military. SPOILER ALERT: For my part, I don't buy that. Skylar is supposed to be his more evolved foil, and yet she just stands there when Josh calls Chris - her other best friend, the person who understands her the best on earth - a faggot. Um, what? And, she conveniently gets together with Josh when Chris has already left for college. That Skylar was able to turn on a dime and just jettison her loyalty to her soulmate seemed REALLY out of character for me. She never required Josh to apologize or to check himself - or grow up.
Another element of the novel which gave me pause was its treatment of PTSD. Those like the author with real life experience of a person with PTSD knows that surviving it and having a romantic relationship with someone who has it, is a crapshoot. You never know when it's all going to go to hell. That's really downplayed in this novel, and may give readers the idea that there's someone out there who they could ride in and rescue. However, this a romance, straight up, and so that's a little par for the course, maybe; the author gives a nod to the problems ahead, but with the golden sun shining blindingly on the horizon while everyone prepares to ride off into the sunset, it's hard to actually hear that little voice that says, "this HEA is a little premature." There's a lot of "forever" in this novel which seems equally premature, but again: romance.
Conclusion: While I might wish the reader had had more time and evidences of Skylar's commitment to her art and her personal growth as an individual instead of as part of a "we," I know that readers will fall hard for this story. Deft characterization and a realistic landscape peopled with sympathetic characters will make this novel a keeper for a lot of people. Readers after a sweeping romance and a starry-eyed "happily ever after" after intensely identifying with the loneliness and pain of Skylar and Josh will lap up the ending and hug this book when they go to sleep.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After February 3, you can get yourself I'LL MEET YOU THERE by Heather Demetrios as a little early Valentine's gift at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!