Alex Winchester has enough on her plate in trying to navigate her junior year of high school. She’s feuding with friends, dealing with a crush that might be something more, and attempting to overcome a crippling fear of getting behind the wheel in driver’s ed. But then her mom starts acting strangely, and it isn’t long before she’s in a full-blown psychosis where she thinks she’s aviator Amelia Earhart. As Alex struggles to help her mom while concealing her from other parts of her life, she worries that her mother will go out on Earhart’s final voyage and disappear forever.
Cardi’s thoughtful, authentic novel about a family struggling with the very real effects of mental illness is getting a fair amount of critical praise, and for good reason. Cardi’s debut could veer into the too-quirky side of things based on the premise alone, but a firm grip on the plot, its characters, and the writing keeps this from ever happening. The result is a realistic, gripping portrayal of a family in turmoil.
What works especially well is Cardi’s characterization. Alex is a fully-realized, very flawed teen who uses humor to cope with the huge amount of responsibility she has to shoulder. Notably, Alex’s younger siblings are also given enough page time to develop as secondary characters, and their evolution as they deal with their mother’s illness is particularly well done. There’s a lot of exploration of different issues here, including concepts of love, acceptance, and identity. All of this is woven seamlessly into the narrative.
One of the novel’s only weaker aspects comes in the form of the bantering dialogue between Alex and Jim as they get to know each other. While it’s meant to be funny and witty, it never quite gets there, perhaps because Cardi is trying so hard to make it so. But this is so minor a detail it almost feels unnecessary to mention. The rest of Cardi’s dialogue largely works, and the light romance will satisfy readers who like their realistic tales to have a touch of love in them.
A very strong debut dealing with very real, very hard things. This is a great example of a contemporary YA novel where the author doesn’t offer her readers nor her characters a neat, tidy ending. While the novel ends on a hopeful note, it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. Recommended.
The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi. Candlewick: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review.