Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Tween/Teen (11 and up)
Summary: Twelve-year-old Fern feels invisible in her family. Her dad is obsessed with the family restaurant and hardly ever comes home for dinner anymore; her mother is constantly escaping to her special room to meditate; and her perpetually critical sister Sara is miserable to be stuck at working at the family diner while her friends are all away at college. Fern has always had a special bond with her older brother Holden, but now that he's started high school he's busy coping with school bullies and his own emerging sexuality. And then there's adorable, irrepressible three-year-old Charlie, the constant center of attention within the family. The only person keeping Fern sane is her eternally calm and optimistic best friend Ran, who almost makes her believe that "all will be well." But then tragedy strikes and even Ran can't see how things will ever be okay again.
First Line: "The very best day of my life, I threw up four times and had a fever of 103 degrees."
This is a book that will make you laugh, break your heart, and then somehow, against all odds, make you smile again. Knowles's characters are fully developed, with authentic emotions and flaws. Quiet, introspective Fern makes a wonderful narrator, and though the lens through which she sees each of her family members is necessarily skewed by her own perspective, readers are able sympathize with each of the characters. Fern's voice is distinct and engaging, often with shades of unintentional humor. This is especially true when she talks about her family:
Holden is always running off in a huff, and I am always the one searching for him and bringing him home. Holden's named after the main character in The Catcher in the Rye. I wasn't supposed to read it until I'm older, but I snuck my mom's paperback copy out of her room last year. The pages were all soft from her reading it so many times. The book is about this boy who's depressed because he thinks everyone he knows is a phony, so he runs away. I understand why my mom liked the book and all, but I personally think is was a big mistake to name your kid after a boy who tries to kill himself, even if he is thoughtful and brilliant. My favorite parts in the book are when the main characters talks about his little sister, Phoebe. Sometimes I think I'm a little like Phoebe to our Holden. Because in the book she's the one he goes back for. And that's sort of like me. Only I have to go looking for him first. (25–26)The first third of the book introduces the quirk-filled family, from Fern's goodhearted, embarrassing father to demanding, loveable Charlie. But then everything—the simple coming-of-age story you thought you were reading—comes to a devastating halt as tragedy strikes. The emotions become even more palpable, and the characters more real.
Relationships shine in this book, particularly the bond between Holden and Fern—and later, when she steps up after the tragedy, Sara. Fern's friendship with Ran and Cassie—which also adds a minor love triangle to the mix—rings equally true and enjoyable. I don't want to spoil the "tragedy" that shifts the direction of the narrative, so there is not much more I can say about this gripping story. Characters must cope with guilt, grief, and other complex emotions, but the story never becomes maudlin or melodramatic. But there are hints of brightness amidst the darkness that comes. This is a simply but incredibly well-written story, full of humor, compassion, heartwrenching tragedy, and, eventually, healing.