Both Hands and a Map

You Are Here by Jennifer E. Smith

Reading Challenge: A book about a road trip

When I got to the end of You Are Here, and by “end” I mean the inside jacket flap, I found myself looking at the smiling face of Jennifer E. Smith and thinking “hey, she looks like a really nice person.” And she does. Friendly, with a good sense of humor, possibly self-deprecating. She got her master’s in creative writing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which is wicked cool. Jennifer E. Smith seems, from her picture, like a person who would tell you good stories. Which is why it makes me sad to report that if she does have good stories to tell, You Are Here ain’t it. A more fitting title for this book would have been There’s No There There.

Another thing I realized, looking at Jennifer E. Smith’s face, after I’d gotten through the end of her book, was “man – you’re going to say mean things about her book and how is that fair? Someone worked hard on this.” But I found I couldn’t really believe that. I mean, I’m sure she did. But I cannot picture anyone throwing blood, sweat, and tears into this book. There’s something half-assed about it. The adjectives that kept popping into my mind as I read this book were “watery” and “weak.” “Contrived” also came to mind. The premise of the story involves two teenagers, neighbors, each other’s social world, who have each suffered a significant loss in their immediate families, and independently each decides to take a rebellious road trip that winds up being the same road trip when one’s car breaks down. Also, there’s a 3-legged dog that appears at a rest stop and comes along for the ride, because of course there is.

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to feel some kind of interest or compassion or frustration as the characters changed over time (and map metaphors, similes, and symbolism were crammed in rather like improperly-folded road maps in an overstuffed glove compartment and did you see what I did there? Sure you did). But all I could manage was a mild dislike for our young heroes, and nothing for their one-dimensional families. Allow me to introduce the quotes that made me shudder and really cemented my dislike for them:

    He could understand why she was upset, maybe even a little bit angry, but he wanted her to hurry up and realize that in the midst of this whole mess he was still there for her, the only one who really understood her. (p. 171)

Even though (or because) he takes it all back internally in the next sentence, that tells you everything you need to know about Peter. As for Emma,

    She knew she was wired differently from most people, that she wasn’t often understood and was even less often inclined to try to understand others. (p. 182)

Emma is so different, you guys. She thinks so, Peter thinks so, but we never see any real evidence of that. Nor does she have a detectable personality. At least Peter, although he irritated me more, has a few preferences and habits. Emma likes animals. She’s sort of average in an intellectual family. And…that’s about it. Also she totally doesn’t care what she looks like, but who wants to guess that she’s pale, skinny, and long-haired?

I still feel sorry that I didn’t like this book. As I said, Jennifer E. Smith looks like a nice person! A person who worked hard. I felt less bad, though, when I noticed that a few chapters would inconsistently switch POV in a confusing way. And I felt way less bad when I got to this line on page 232:

    “Mom…,” Emma began, but she wasn’t sure where to even start.

You could start by not adding a comma after an ellipsis. That would be a start.

Suggested pairing: Keystone Lite. No, don’t ACTUALLY drink Keystone Lite. But that’s what these kids will be drinking when they go to college in upstate New York in a couple of years and, yeah, it’s weak and watery, so it’s appropriate.

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