Ryan Dean West is the youngest junior in his class at the rich boarding school he attends. For junior year, he’s relegated to Opportunity Hall, which is the dorm for the school’s troublemakers. His roommate? The biggest bully on his rugby team. It gets worse: Ryan Dean is totally in love with his best friend Annie. Throughout the course of the year, Ryan Dean uses his humor and his friends to survive all of life’s pitfalls, but when things take a turn for the really ugly, he has to learn how to keep on when it feels like his life has come apart at the seams.
There’s a lot to like about Andrew Smith’s Winger, and for the most part, the book works really well. Ryan Dean’s narration is spot-on, funny, and fully authentic. This is one of the best narrative voices you’ll find in YA fiction this year, and there’s no doubt that Smith nails it. At times brutally honest, bracingly funny, and a little bit frenetic, Ryan Dean is a protagonist readers won’t soon forget.
Supporting characters are also interesting, real, and memorable. Smith navigates a variety of topics through Ryan Dean’s narration (and his hand-drawn cartoons, which are often very, very funny). As Ryan Dean deals with a maybe-budding relationship with Annie and the realization that he’s growing apart from some of his oldest friends, readers are with him step-by-step.
The problem for this reader is the twisty, upsetting event that happens way too late in the story. Shocking and memorable, for sure, but without getting into spoilers, it felt like too much too late. There wasn’t time to process the event, and the book ends so soon afterward that it feels almost abrupt. For this reader, the pacing was all off, and the result was more than slightly uneven.
Still, this book is likely to attract a lot of passionate fans, and it’s a great choice for both male and female teens looking for a funny, sharply witty boarding school tale.
Winger by Andrew Smith. Simon & Shuster: 2013. Library copy.