Sarah Dessen has been a notable name in YA fiction for quite sometime now, and it was only recently that I decided to pick up her latest novel, Along for the Ride, and give it a whirl. Do you remember the movie How to Deal with Mandy Moore? That was based on Sarah Dessen's 2003 novel of the same name, so Dessen is indeed a young adult literary powerhouse! Yet, for some reason, I was under the impression that she only wrote sappy-sweet romantic stories, but Along for the Ride would not fit into that category. Romance, yes, but not in the unrealistic and Disney Princess-ish way that lots of books in that genre can dish out to its teen readers. I love that Dessen creates real characters with depth and complexities - teens that have substance and do not embody the usual stereotypes. The romance factor of the book is also not a grandiose-night-in-shining-armor scenario that might leave girls with unattainable expectations of teen boys. (Because honestly, REAL teen boys are anything but romantic!) The boys in Along for the Ride are true-to-form teenage males but still have heart and sweetness in likable and believable doses. Dessen doesn't just use them as props in her novel, which is refreshing. They have purpose and play roles that aren't just romantically inclined. (Boys can be your friend...not just your make-out buddy!) Teen boys may be full of hormones, but they don't always have to be the jerk or the hero...they need to be handled with just as much care as teen girls when avoiding stereotypes. Dessen gives each sex their due respect.
Girls today will have no problems relating to the main character, Auden, who decides to spend her last summer before starting college with her father and his new wife, Heidi. Heidi and Auden's father also have a new baby that Auden has yet to meet, which is a subplot that is surprisingly heart wrenching and thoroughly believable. It doesn't shock me that Sarah Dessen has a new baby, due to her VERY accurate portrayal of home life with a newborn under the roof. (I teared up at the scene in which Auden comes home one evening to find her stepmother sobbing on the couch, spit up stains galore and yet to shower that day, clutching a frantically crying newborn. Only a woman whose had a child could relay Heidi's extreme exhaustion and desperation for a few hours of peace! Maybe scenes like this could curtail teen pregnancy??)
In addition to spending time with her father and his new family, Auden hopes to enjoy a summer of sand and fun since she spent much of her teen years playing the role of "perfect daughter", and would purposely stay up late to keep her parents from fighting. Long after her parents' marriage fell apart, Auden was still staying up late and unable to sleep like a normal teen. She filled her nocturnal minutes studying and readying herself for college. (Both of her parents are authors and professors, so the academic life is what Auden knows and school is her entire life.) During Auden's late nights in Colby, she meets Eli, who also can not sleep due to the recent (and tragic) loss of his best friend.
Before you assume that Eli and Auden will spend their nighttime hours making out and the like, think again. Eli creates a "quest" for Auden's lost youth spent studying and playing referee to her parents' arguments. He decides that they should attempt to do all of the activities that Auden missed out on in her childhood. In the process, both teens find friendship and learn more about each other's rocky past than they ever would have participating in a traditional dating scenario. Each teen must overcome their past in order to move forward with their future. Touching. Sweet. Real.