(Note: I received an ARC of this book at TLA Annual Conference in exchange for my honest review.)
Justin and Emmy have both arrived at Heartland Academy at rock bottom–Justin is recovering from having a stomach full of Tylenol pumped out as well as being found in a seriously compromising situation with a girl he didn’t really know and Emmy has just been kicked out of school for threatening a boy who was bullying her on Facebook–but neither one seems to think he/she belongs here. Despite their initial discomfort about being forced to “deal with their issues,” both Emmy and Justin reluctantly become a part of a support group filled with teens as equally broken, flawed, and struggling as them. Although the group coalesces around the idea of breaking out of Heartland for just one night, it eventually morphs into a ragtag family that enables all its members to achieve some self-discovery and to make some true friends.
Thoughts— I picked up this book at TLA based on the recommendation of the Egmont rep at the YA publisher’s presentation, and I was definitely not disappointed. Cook and Halpin follow a format familiar to readers of dual author YA books–alternating chapters between Emmy’s narration and Justin’s–and I thought they did an excellent job finding the distinct voice of each character and maintaining the continuity of that voice even as the characters grew and began to come to terms with their issues. Both Emmy and Justin are engaging narrators with sharp wits and seriously sarcastic voices, and I was particularly struck by the nuanced way Cook and Halpin dealt with Emmy’s disordered eating and Justin’s attitude towards sex. It would have been easy to slip into stereotypes about those issues, but this story doesn’t do that at all. The discussion of these admittedly heavy issues never feels message-y or didactic; it just feels real.
In addition to Emmy and Justin, the authors have crafted the most wonderful motley crew of fellow “inmates” at Heartland. From the selectively mute Jenny to pathological liar Mohammed to damaged Diana, all the supporting characters in A Really Fine Mess really add something to the narrative and don’t just function as placeholders or blank faces in the support group. In fact, the only characterization that felt a little thin to me was that of the adults (a common complaint in YA fiction); some of them felt just a little too pat or perfect for me. The only really memorable adults for me were Tina, the group’s facilitator, and Justin’s negligent dad.
I think the best thing about A Really Fine Mess is how emotionally resonant and evocative it is. Cook and Halpin really take the time to examine Emmy, Justin, and some of the supporting characters’ motivations and the source of their behavior in a way that seems authentic. Additionally, I felt very invested in the fate of each teen–by the end, I really wanted to see all of them succeed and move forward with their lives. My only complaint would be that the novel ends on a slightly false note…it’s maybe just a little too tidy of a package. Not that it’s a completely happy ending, but that it all works out slightly too well. After wrestling with the complexities of mental health, eating disorders, adoption, and child abuse, the upbeat ending just rang kind of false for me. It wasn’t too off, however, to keep me from really enjoying the book and heartily recommending it to other readers.
Readalikes: Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach