Amy Reed's latest novel Over You comes with everything readers who have been fans of Reed have come to expect: compelling characters, a strong back story to all of those characters, fluid and strong writing, and a story line that keeps you going through to the end, never wanting to set the book down. What Over You adds that takes this book from being a really good one to an outstanding one is how it goes from being a story about a friendship -- an unhealthy one -- to being a story about independence and, at heart, about feminism.
Sadie's been kicked out of her house by her father for drinking too much, and she's being sent to live with her mother Lark on her farm in rural Nebraska. Sadie, unable to do anything alone or for herself, begs her friend Max to join her on the trip. She agrees, and the story begins as both wait at a bus stop to be picked up by Sadie's mother's boyfriend/stepfather/romantic partner.
Max is the one telling the story. Max lives for Sadie and would follow her anywhere. They're best friends; they love each other; they're connected at the hip. There have been times when Sadie's been Max's romantic interest, too, where the lines between best friend and romantic interest and the feelings therein have blurred a bit, and Sadie's allowed Max to indulge in those feelings.
But once the two girls get to the farm and find they're going to be housed together in a small trailer on a farm where sustainability and intentional living are the keys to success and happiness, Sadie contracts an illness that forces her to quarantine. Max can't handle it -- she can't be away from Sadie, can't be away from the girl who helped her find her way in the world. It's especially distressing at the farm, since this is the place where Max didn't necessarily want to fit in. She didn't want to be separated from Sadie because Sadie is her best friend and the person who helps direct the course of her life.
Of course, that forced separation is what Max needs to realize that Sadie is no friend.
Sadie is the kind of girl who needs to have power in a situation. Who needs to be doted upon. And Max realizes this when Sadie's illness means that Max is good for nothing BUT giving into Sadie's demands and wishes. Sadie doesn't love her; Sadie uses her.
There's another element to this story, and that comes in the form of Dylan. He's the boy Sadie had her eyes on when they first got to the farm, and he's the boy who Max finds herself spending a lot of time with now, as Sadie's taken sick. Slowly, Max finds herself falling for Dylan. He's mysterious and dark and aloof -- all of the things that Max found so compelling about Sadie.
He's her replacement, which means...he's not going to be good for Max either. Though I saw it coming from miles away, he goes as far as Sadie does in abusing Max's good nature and good will -- but his advances are physical, and they are taunting in a very sexual and horrific manner.
So what's the point when Max says enough is enough?
Well. That's the farm. The point of the farm. It's the state of Nebraska. It's Max remembering her own passion for mythology. It's the entire idea of the phoenix, destroying herself and then rebuilding herself from the ashes.
Reed's method of doing this is smart. It's almost exceedingly simple and yet, it's perfect. There are chapters interspersing the narrative which are tales of the different Greek myths and the writing in them is downright spectacular. It's literary and engrossing and so perfectly captures Max's struggle and her passion all at once.
One of the strongest elements of this story is that Max is bisexual. But this is never, ever the defining feature of her story. And where it would be so easy for the narrative to shift toward that, especially as Sadie herself blurts this out at a barn party in the middle of no where Nebraska (where you as a midwesterner bristle, worried about the reaction), you remember that teenagers are teenagers and that means sometimes their reactions to such heavy news about a person is no reaction at all because it is truly not a big deal. But of course, this is what Dylan uses against Max in a disturbing, painful scene near the end of the book. It is, though, Max's decision to take ownership of her body, her decisions, her relationships, and her lifestyle back from any and everyone else. When she does that, even Dylan's sickening abuse of her sexuality against her is not a big deal. It's handled with such care.
Max is one of my favorite YA characters in a long time. I loved experiencing the world through her eyes, and there were many times I completely related to a lot of her struggle about identity and what it means to be a good person, what it means to love and express that, and what it means to be a good friend. It's not about narrating someone's story for them; it's about narrating your own. She also has a strong back story, which is one we don't get to know at all until we finally get to see the world through her eyes. It takes her a long time to open it up, and when she does, things only snap further into place.
Reed is a gem in contemporary ya. This is the kind of book I can see teens I work with loving, especially as it's set in the midwest, as it's infused with life on a farm/in a small town, and yet it doesn't fall into the easy trappings or stereotypes of those sorts of teen lives at all. Readers who have read Reed before will be eager for this book, and those who love stories about friendship -- and those looking for a nice feminist novel -- will do well with Over You. Hand this over, too, to fans of Kirsten Hubbard's Like Mandarin.
Over You is available now. Review copy picked up at ALA Midwinter.