You know how sometimes a song or a particular book reminds you of a day, or a place, or a season? I’ll forever associate Julie Halpern’s latest novel Don’t Stop Now with summertime, roadtrips without air conditioning, and intense heat. It’ll be a reminder of those shimmering waves of hot air that seem to billow out of the asphalt along the horizon line, of the windows down and the music too loud (so you can hear it over the rush of the wind), and of the inevitable orange snacks you pick up at an anonymous corner store.
On the first day of Lillian’s summer-before-college, she gets a message on her cell from her sort-of friend, Penny. Not only has Penny faked her own kidnapping, but Lil is the only one who figures it out. She knows that Penny’s home life has been rough, and that her boyfriend may be abusive. Soon, Penny’s family, the local police, and even the FBI are grilling Lil, and she decides to head out to Oregon, where Penny has mentioned an acquaintance. And who better to road-trip across the country with than Lil’s BFF, Josh. But here’s the thing: Lil loves Josh. And Josh doesn’t want to “ruin” their amazing friendship.
Josh has a car and his dad’s credit card. Lil has her cellphone and a hunch about where Penny is hiding. There’s something else she needs to find: Are she and Josh meant to be together?
Julie Halpern has a way with characters (and, of course, a way with words) that puts her up at the top of my list when I’m recommending contemporary YA lit. Her stories feature realistic teens, situations, and friendships – the things that broke your heart, changed your life, and formed the foundation of who you decided to grow up to be. It’s no surprise, then, that her latest novel is a winner.
With her mother’s benediction, Lillian, or ‘Lil’, has given herself the summer before college (where Sarah Dessen heroines live forever) to savor being free of responsibilities, adulthood and the real world. But on the first day of that freedom, her pity-friend (yes, I think that’s a thing) Penny calls and leaves a message that changes everything. Lil and her best friend Josh set out on a cross-country roadtrip to find out what’s really going on. What ensues is not only a fact-finding mission, but an adventure that will change them all – perhaps forever.
Ah Penny, and her fateful phone call. Penny has been a ‘quest’ for Lil – her good deed of the year is an ongoing effort to get Penny to hang out. Problem? Lil sees Penny more as an object than as a person. In fact, the reader sees her this way too, in 2D, an object to be pitied rather than a real character. The ‘mystery’ of where Penny is and what she’s doing is fairly transparent and predictable.
But the real meat of the novel is Lil and Josh’s relationship, and how it develops over the roadtrip. Speaking of roadtrip: I have LIVED THIS STORY. Really. I mean, not with a platonic best friend of the opposite sex, but I have driven cross-country in a car without air conditioning and visited these attractions (okay, most of them) in August. Multiple times, actually. I’m not going to lie, Halpern is spot on. It’s the next best thing to actually experiencing it yourself (and very possibly better than experiencing it yourself, to be quite honest).
Josh and Lil come across as real, authentic characters who have reached a point of comfort in both their skins and with each other. Lil wants to take their friendship to the next level, Josh doesn’t want to change anything – about, well, anything. Over the course of the trip they discover that much more about what they want, who they are, and where it all goes from here.
What to say? This novel felt honest. I liked it. I didn’t necessarily get what I wanted, but I did read something true, and that’s probably better. Don’t Stop Now had its flaws (ahem, Penny!), but it will go down for me as one of the most summery books I have ever read. Can’t wait to pick it up on a frigid winter day and relive the heat and memories!
Recommended for: fans of Sarah Dessen and Jenny Han, those looking for a stellar poolside YA read on a hot day, and anyone who has experienced (or dreamed of) a summer road trip with no rules and no responsibilities.
Fine print: I received an ARC for review from the publisher (and then promptly bought my own hardcover copy!).