Friday, July 6, 2012
Things this summer, though, aren't the same. When dad comes to pick Whitley up, he breaks the news: he's no longer living in the condo. He's got a new woman in his life. He's also got two new step-kids. And as if things could be any worse, it turns out that one of those new kids happens to be Nathan, the boy Whitley slept with at a big graduation party just weeks ago.
Not awkward at all.
When Whitley gets to her dad's new place, she's angry. She's unhappy with the new arrangement, but she's doubly unhappy because she can't get a second of her father's time. This was going to be the summer he helped her figure out what she should do with her life and what she should study in college. This is the last summer before she's officially on her own as a college student. But now, dad's too busy with his job and things are downright uncomfortable living with Nathan and his little sister Bailey, who keeps pestering Whitley to take her shopping.
Whitley takes to partying it up in small town Hamilton, Illinois, much like she did back home with her mom. Except now it's a much smaller stage and when word gets out that the local TV news anchor's daughter is getting around and getting sloppy drunk, the evidence shows up on Facebook and mars not only Whitley's reputation, but also her father's. When Whitley tries to reach out to her older blood brother -- who lives across the country and is happily married -- she can't get the time of day. The time she finally does, she learns the awful truth of what happened between her parents and why her mother and father divorced in the first place. This nugget of knowledge doesn't help her in the situation, but it wakes her up to the truth of everything she's come to believe about the adults in her life. And it definitely helps her reassess her situation and her own life choices. And Nathan, who she thought she'd screwed things up with permanently, may be one of the greatest people she could ask for in her life.
A Midsummer's Nightmare showcases a real growth in Kody Keplinger's writing -- as much as I liked her first book, The Duff, I found this one to be much more emotionally engaging with richly developed characters and plenty of plot to tease apart. Whitley is not an easy character to like. From the start, she's introduced to us as a party girl who doesn't seem to have much going for her. She's angry and frustrated. She's got a reputation for sleeping around and doesn't care. But as much as it's easy to dislike her because of this, she pretty quickly garners sympathy. It's obvious that she's behaving this way out of self-preservation, rather than out of a desire to be a bad girl. We know early on that there's something has happened with her parents and her life isn't easy at home. As unfriendly as Whitley is throughout the beginning of the story, her hurt is palpable and begs the reader to pay attention. She tries really hard to get people to pay attention to her through good means -- she calls her brother and she repeatedly tells her dad she wants to talk with him -- but when those methods don't work, she finds herself turning to drinking and partying because that at least wakes people up to her. It's not healthy, but she's stuck and this is her way of unsticking. I found myself really liking Whitley, even if she didn't want herself to be a likable character (because she doesn't).
Much of what Whitley tells readers from the start has us believing her mother is a selfish, childish woman and her father -- who is a pretty big deal anchorman for the local tv news -- is a sort of saint. So when he breaks the news that he's got a new lady in his life and a whole new family, Whitley feels shattered. She didn't want this. Her dad didn't ask her for permission (though it's obvious to us as readers he doesn't need to, we feel her anger with her). And when Whitley realizes that her father's putting in extra hours at work, rather than spending time with her, she starts to suspect there's more to him than she's believed. The truth, as she learns, is that her father hasn't been a great guy. That he's made huge mistakes when it comes to his personal life. The next paragraph is spoiler territory, so proceed with caution (or skip to the paragraph after).
The moment when Whitley learns her father and mother divorced because her father cheated on her mother, my heart sank for her. This information changes her. Even though it seems small, Whitley's beliefs about her father shatter. The man she once saw as a cool guy who did no wrong was suddenly a cheater in her mind. I've talked a little bit before about my own family, about my father and our complicated relationship. When I was younger, I learned that the reason my parents divorced was this same reason: my father cheated on my mom (with the woman he then married soon after). Learning this about a parent is a big deal, as it's one of those moments when your beliefs about the infallibility of adults changes. For Whitley, this information gives her great perspective into why her mother is so hurt, and it gives her insight into why her father was always the kind of guy he was. He was immature and irresponsible -- not the laid back, cool dude she thought he was. I give Keplinger major kudos in how she tackles this sensitive topic. It's here we see a huge shift in Whitley and it's here we identify with her strongly as a character who hurts, rather than as a character who is "bad." This isn't overplayed nor is it overplayed as a plot element; it's well-played and made me sympathize so much with Whitley. In that moment I completely got her and her situation. It was a real awakening for her, and it pushed her forward in the way it needed to. I'd argue this is where she learned she was an adult herself.
The other element that shook this story up was the relationship between Whitley and her new step-brother Nathan and the relationship between Whitley and her new step-sister Bailey. Things are strained between Whit and Nathan because of their sexual encounter early on. While she fixates on this and worries about the impact that decision has on their relationship as step-siblings, Nathan moves forward. He's incredibly mature but not in a manner that makes him a perfect guy. He admits to making mistakes -- including losing his virginity with Whitley in the manner he did. Over the course of learning to navigate their new family, the two of them come to find out they care about each other in a way that's much deeper than a one night stand. There's a real and sweet connection between them, and they learn that their futures are entangled in more than one way. Keplinger does a great job not making this sappy nor overly sentimental -- that wouldn't be true to Whitley. Instead, it's real and it's potentially rocky.
My favorite relationship to watch in A Midsummer's Nightmare was the one between 13-year-old Bailey and Whitley. Bailey tells Whit from the start she's so excited to have an older sister. She wants someone to look up to and to model. Because she's so angry and hurt, Whitley screws this up from the start. Rather than seeing the potential in being a role model and in being a sister, she hurts Bailey repeatedly. But Bailey loves her so much, she continues to give her new chances. It was really reminiscent of the other relationships in Whitley's life -- despite uncovering the bad things and the dark things, there is always a chance for redemption, and that's exemplified through Bailey. When Whit lets down her guard and allows herself to be loved and to share love, the relationship between the two of them only becomes stronger.
Although there's drinking, drugs, and sex in this book, it's purposeful. It gives us insight into Whitley and her need for something to protect her during this time of transition. For me, this book is really all about transitions -- there's a huge family transition for Whitley's father, as well as Nathan and Bailey. There's a huge transition for Whitley here, too, and she's gearing up for leaving the high school world and entering college (where there's a hugely unknown future awaiting her). With this many characters experiencing transition in one place, there are bound to be actions that are selfish and self-protecting, and Keplinger nails this. A Midsummer's Nightmare will appeal to readers who have ever gone through major family changes and those who are hesitant and worried about the transition from the isolated and "safe" world of high school to college. Whitley's got a great voice and she's never once too smart for herself. Readers who liked Keplinger's other titles will like this one. This isn't a fluffy story, and it's one that will likely resonate for many who have ever wondered where the boundaries between childhood and adulthood lie. For me, this was a story of Whitley realizing she was right in the midst of that huge life change, and without doubt, I see many readers readily identifying with her.
This book impressed me, and I'm really eager to see where Keplinger goes next. I love watching writers grow and I love watching their story telling skills continue to improve.
Review of Kody Keplinger's The Duff
Review of Kody Keplinger's Shut Out
Review copy received from the publisher. A Midsummer's Nightmare is available now!