Dessen, Sarah. Along for the Ride.

NY: Viking, 2009.

I only recently discovered this author, whose books are marketed as Young Adult, but I’m very impressed with her work, period. She considers themes and issues of interest to teenagers, but they should also actually appeal to any reader who is interested in people and how they interact with each other. And Dessen never, ever writes down to her readers. She expects you to pay attention and think about what you’re reading regardless of your age.

Auden West (named after the poet), having just been valedictorian of an academically elite high school, is facing her last summer before going off to an equally elite college. With two professors for parents, academic achievement is what she does (“school was my solace”), but she’s not sure that even she can put up with her excessively demanding mother for three more months. So she goes off to the little beach town of Colby (which feels like it’s probably on the North Carolina coast, where the author comes from, though Dessen never says) to visit her divorced and remarried father for eight weeks. Her stepmother, Heidi, twenty years younger than her Dad, has just become a mother herself, and Auden hopes the summer will be restful. Boy, is she mistaken. Her Dad is struggling with his second novel (and has been for years), Heidi is struggling with postpartum issues, and Auden suddenly finds herself trying to deal with both their crazinesses.

Heidi owns a successful beach shop but she can’t manage that and her constantly screaming infant, too, so Auden gets drafted to handle the shop’s accounts. And the three girls who work with Heidi’s customers turn out to be Auden’s entree into the social world she’s never had time for — or much interest in, actually. With their help, she will learn to be a girl.

Auden became an insomniac when her parents’ marriage was collapsing a few years before, and now she’s in the habit of going out to drive around and drink coffee as the sun goes down and crashing for eight hours when it rises again. She has her breakfast when other people are getting off work. But she turns out not to be the only one. She gradually meets the guys who work at the bike shop, too, the manager of which is twenty-year-old Eli, who has his own reasons for hiding from the world. And Eli decides to escort her on her quest — she didn’t know she was even on a quest, but he convinces her she is — to experience all the things she missed in high school. Like bowling. And food fights. And throwing newspapers at sunrise. And eating pie at Clyde’s laundromat and cafe. Maybe she can learn to be normal yet.

Dessen is very good at creating fully-rounded characters, as she demonstrates here. Her father, always selfish and inconsiderate, but Auden loves him despite that. Heidi, who is much smarter and stronger than she at first seems. Maggie, from the shop, who becomes Auden’s best friend in Colby, and who is both a girly-girl (deeply conversant with the finer points of brands of jeans and flip-flops), and who loves anything pink, but is also the smartest person in town — and, in fact, is heading to the same high-powered college as Auden. She’s also a mean BMX competitor and teaches Auden to ride a bike — something else she missed learning as a kid. I’m going to be gradually reading my way through this author’s other works with great anticipation.

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