Auden’s been acting like a grown-up since she was a child. Her parents’ divorce forced her to grow up quickly, and as a result, Auden has things pretty together. The problem is, she’s missed out on a lot of kid things, and when she decides to spend the last summer before college with her dad and his new wife in the beach town of Colby, she meets a group of teenagers who are particularly adept at being teenagers. When she starts hanging out with Eli, a loner with chronic insomnia, she starts to realize that there’s a lot she’s missed out on.
The covers on Sarah Dessen’s novels are so often misleading. While this book’s cover hints at a light summer romance, Dessen’s novel brings so much more to the table than a frothy story of summer love and bicycles. Complex characterization, meaty plots, and dynamic characters make this novel really deliver, and readers who have come to expect Dessen’s magic won’t be disappointed by this one.
Auden is a socially awkward young woman who has found some level of comfort in performing well academically. She strives to be like her mother and admires her father, despite the fact that both have let her down as parents. Like her mother, Auden tends to judge people based on first appearances, and when she arrives in the beach town of Colby, she does just that with everyone she meets: the girls at her stepmother Heidi’s store, the boys on bikes who hang around outside, and even Heidi herself. Auden’s sharp criticisms of everyone around her begin to change, however, when she starts to get to know the people she’s judging.
This is, of course, where Dessen really shines. Her ability to craft authentic characters is pretty much unrivaled in YA, and this book is no different from her other titles. Everyone from Auden to her parents to Maggie to the dreamy Eli is extremely well-developed, real, and flawed. It helps that Dessen has an ear for authentic teen dialogue, too. Complex characters and their views about life help elevate this book from lighter summer reads.
There’s also the fact that the spark between Auden and Eli is very palpable. As the two spend more time together over the course of the summer, they also help heal each other. We don’t have a case of the boy helping fix the damaged girl or vice versa: here we have two people who are damaged in their own ways helping one another recover from their own personal traumas and move on. It’s subtle, it’s realistic, and it’s pretty moving.
Minor plot contrivances (Auden’s behavior at the first party she attends in Colby) don’t detract from the overall success of the story. Despite both of Auden’s parents being pretty selfish people, they also have moments of real humanity. There’s nothing stereotypical or flat about Dessen’s characters or her world-building, and readers will be consumed by this book completely. Highly recommended.
Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen. Viking Juvenile: 2009. Library copy.