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Recovery Road

This is the first book that I’ve stopped reading for this blog. I am sure this has been covered in other places, in fact I bet you’re sick of me talking about it…but just to obsessively, nervously explain, I am on infant care leave. My son is nearly 7 months old, and all the reading I’m doing is happening at a frantic pace as I flail around, playing catch up because I have mostly been reading books on sleep issues and watching youtube videos on how to take a temperature from a baby’s bottom. (I am sorry, google searcher/frantic parent, I am not actually here to explain how to do so, but I did find this video very helpful and surprisingly calming. Enjoy!)

What I am trying to say is that I haven’t felt like I’ve had a strong sense of the field this year and so that’s made it hard for me to balance my own baggage with the fact that no book is totally perfect with the idea that a Printz winner’s literary excellence exists at least in part based on the rest of the year’s cohort.

So. Recovery Road. Blake Nelson. The book I’m putting aside (unless you care to convince me I’m being premature!). I got about ⅓ of the way through the book and have lightly skimmed the later ⅔.

Maddie is in treatment for addiction and anger management issues. While there, she meets beautiful Stewart. They have an immediate connection but their timing couldn’t be worse. As they navigate the path of recovery, they maintain their friendship and work to support each other. But life is hard, recovery is never smooth, and you can’t always save the people you love.

Here’s what I saw that works well: Maddie’s voice is engaging. It’s realistically teen — I believe her dialogue, and her descriptions are funny without sounding wiser than her years. She’s smart, but she never sounds contrived or false. Consider her description of Trish, another teen in rehab: “She smokes. She wears too much makeup. She probably gives great hand jobs.”

Other good stuff: the friendship Maddie ultimately develops with Trish feels plausible — in fact it’s pleasurable to read. In the middle of bleak rehab, these two teenagers are snarky, tough, and honest with each other.

More good: it’s fast-paced. Nelson has an interesting way of story telling, and I often like it; he just gets such a nice forward momentum going that it’s hard to put down. I actually think that makes him a perfect fiction writer for reluctant readers. And I don’t mean that as a slam on his writing, or as a slam on reluctant readers’ collective tastes. (Quick Picks was my formative committee, and I still consider it the most noble and librarianish of all libraryland committees because it’s dedicated to finding the books that make a difference to indifferent-to-reading teens, regardless of what the librarians on the committee like to read themselves. There’s just so little of this discussion on quality that is at least a little subjective, and it’s a committee that’s about serving, not indulging in high-faluting literary talk….BUT THIS IS NOT THE PLACE FOR THAT DISCUSSION, SARAH, PLEASE STOP OFFENDING YOUR READERS, uh, who are here for high-faluting literary talk. Heh. Hi, y’all.)

Anyway. What I am trying to say is that his books are often smooth reads that pull you in, almost despite yourself. And there are never any extra, fiddly bits*. It’s plot plot plot, and he often does it really well.

Oh, also good: Nelson doesn’t pull any punches about the steep road that is recovery. People don’t make it; in fact there seem to be a lot of funerals (though they all happened in the part I skimmed).

But now we come to my favorite Pee-Wee Herman non-joke: my big but.

Despite how clear he makes it that recovery is difficult, it never seems that hard to Maddie. In general, the stakes just don’t feel high enough. She has a rough moment while actually in rehab, but once out she just makes right choice after right choice and it never feels like a struggle. She can’t hang out with her old friends, Raj or Jake, so…she doesn’t. It’s just that simple, I guess. She takes the precaution of eating small snacks throughout the day and is able to spend lunch hour in the library, and everything’s peachy. I guess?

I can actually tell you the exact place where my windshield cracked: page 74. Maddie’s just back at school and finding her new place to sit in homeroom:

I move through my staring classmates and take my usual place in the back of the room. Then I remember that I have been instructed to never sit in the back of classrooms, to never sit in the back of any room. (Too antisocial; I am supposed to participate.) So I go to the middle of the room, but that feels too claustrophobic. So I go to the side of the room, by the window, and take a seat there, next to a boy I don’t know. He’s one of those keep-your-head-down types, which is probably what I’ll turn into.

But all of this begs the question, what was she before rehab? We know she sat in the back of the classroom, but does that actually mean that she was anti-social? Does she believe she was anti-social? Is that remarkably different than being a keep your head down type in any practical way?

We’ve been told about her family dynamic, but we so rarely actually see her with her family that it’s never given a chance to show us how this smart, tough teen made so many bad choices. She tells her dad that she’s worried about high school classmates who must “hate her guts.” Does she actually mean this? Or is she just blowing smoke up her dad’s ass, as she says she frequently does, to see if she can get away with it? When she gets back to school, very few people really seem to care that she’s back. Which is, I guess, a lesson on perspective for Maddie. But then it makes her nickname, Mad Dog Maddie, seem a little over-the-top. Is she dangerous? She’s famous for beating people up while drunk…but who did she beat up? No one seems scared of her at school.

I guess I just needed a little more history from this character, maybe a few more details about what she did, and a lot more information about why she thinks she did it. Nelson’s stories are always firmly in the present, and that can work well (I really like Rock Star Superstar, for example); it definitely makes his characters seem authentically teen. But for this story, for this character, it just didn’t work for me. Recovery, successful rehab has to involve at least a little introspection, right? So you can understand and then change habits? But it’s like Maddie pulls her rehab switch and smoothly shifts gears.

This review leaves out much mention of Stewart, and the Maddie-Stewart relationship is basically central to the plot. I’m hesitant to comment deeply on it because a lot of it develops after I stopped reading carefully. What I did read felt convenient for the plot, but not tied to the two characters on the page. Their connection seemed to exist because the plot called for it, in other words.

I’ve used up a lot of words, but my point is: I don’t think this one will be among the Final Five. But maybe it will be on QP? And I can bet it’s a book I’ll hand off to a reluctant reader or two down the line. It might change their opinion on reading! Of course, I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

*Fiddly bits: Reluctant readers (generalizing here), in my experience, are analogous to non-gamers, specifically people who aren’t into board games. So someone who knows board games would see something like Ticket to Ride, and would feel comfortable jumping on in and seeing how it goes. Someone who doesn’t play board games, who just gets irritated with them, would see all those little train cars and playing cards and say, NO WAY. Which is why Nelson feels like a QP author to me. No fiddly bits, just story that keeps on giving. And that the reader can engage with at any level and for any length of time that is comfortable.

Pub details: Scholastic, March 2011; reviewed library copy

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. QP?

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Elizabeth — QP = Quick Picks. I meant to insert a link in the actual review, but am doing it here instead!

      Liz — Would love to hear what you think. The backstory may come in to play later on; as I said, I only got just past page 100. If that’s the case, then the problem is that we maybe need to hear more of the backstory earlier on. (Or anyway, I need to, in order to really believe and invest in the characters!) And your discussion on Piper’s Son has me completely intrigued…only I really don’t have the luxury at the moment of repeating a read. So, onward.

      Unless I need to give this more of a shot. Which I am willing to do. :-)

  2. Sarah, you’ve gotten me intrigued enough to read this book because one thing I’m fascinated about is character backstory and when it matters to a book/character (example of it mattering: THE PIPERS SON) and when the backstory simply props something up and isn’t really used. The idea of Mad Dog Maddie backstory that doesn’t deliver (i.e., who did she beat up, no one being scared) wants me to see for myself just what is going on.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I like this one a lot, and for all the reasons you mention, but I don’t think it’s an addiction/rehab novel. Rather, it’s a romance, or a frustrated romance where the reader is rooting so hard for these characters to hook up but it never quite works. Would I rank it ahead of DAUGHER OF SMOKE & BONE or LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM? Nope. But I do think it could make a nice honor book, especially if the committee wants to go for that “sweet spot” that Karyn mentioned.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I would also mention that, for me, the first third of the novel is the least interesting, but I don’t know that everybody will feel that way. In fact, the reviewers for Booklist and Kirkus had problems with the second half, particularly with the pacing. But obviously they are wrong. :-)

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Many, many days late, but I am back, having finally finished Recovery. I have to say, I really — really — liked the back 2/3 of the book. (Jonathan, really agree with you there!) I was able to give up my worry/concern about Maddie’s Whys and just enjoy (well, maybe not enjoy, because the book makes it powerfully clear how bleak and repetitive and just plain mundane recovery is) her path through recovery.

      Where it didn’t work as well for me was in the love story. I think one part of that is because I skimmed through the book and knew what was coming in the end. I knew not to get too attached to Stewart. So: that’s all me, there.

      But I think that Stewart is just not that interesting, fundamentally. Maddie felt like a teen I know, a teen who comes in to Teen Central and her turn around is inspiring and hard-won (I know, I’m disagreeing with my review. What can I say, I contain multitudes. Also I finished the book). Stewart felt like her boyfriend that I have never met, who doesn’t hang out at Teen Central, about whom she talked a lot and about whom I would just think, “Oh, honey, no.” So the romance, or the frustrated romance, was just a little too removed for me.

      Part of me wants to chalk it up to the limits of first person narration, but Trish was so vivid and heartbreaking that I don’t think it’s just that. (As a point of contrast, I also knew what was coming for Trish, and still found it horribly, horribly sad.)

  5. Although I admire your honesty in admitting you gave up on this novel, I can’t say I agree with your decision. There are so many formulaic and predictable books in which quitting wouldn’t make any difference, but if a book has gotten a couple starred reviews (as I believe this one has), then I’d want to read the whole thing if only to figure out why my opinions were so different from the other reviewers.

    RECOVERY ROAD is one of my top ten YA books of 2011. I have to admit that I’m probably biased due to some personal events in my own life. But I LIKED that the author didn’t go overboard in describing Maddie’s motivations. Too often, books of this type have the feeling of bibliotherapy and are so specific in explaining the cause/effect of this illness that readers may come to think that addiction only happens to “some people” for “certain reasons” instead of realizing it can happen to almost anyone. It’s been nearly a year since I read RECOVERY ROAD and I should probably read it again before commenting but, as I recall, Maddie is nearing the end of rehab when the book begins, so this novel isn’t really about WHY Maddie became an alcoholic but, instead, about RECOVERY — staying sober and how that choice works for some people and doesn’t work for others.

    I just quickly read the customer reviews on Amazon and even some of the novel’s biggest fans complain that the latter half of the book is slow and meandering…but I liked that the story covers two or three years, showing in personal terms that recovery is neither quick nor easy, but a longterm change of lifestyle.

    As I said, thinking about the book now makes me want to read it a second time. And if I can read it twice, you can read it once. : )


    • Sarah Couri says:

      Peter and Jonathan, you are very persuasive. I will keep on with Recovery Road. Let me see where I am at the end of this weekend. See you back here in the comments?

  6. Peter’s comment has convinced me to give this book a shot. I doubt I’ll love-love-love it but it seems worth reading.

    I really respect what Blake Nelson is trying to do with his books, even if they’re not always to my taste, because it’s something you don’t see a lot in YA fiction: he seems to be writing from the perspective of a real teenager. Not a precocious snark machine, not an Ultra Special Excepto-Girl, just someone who’s a little confused, a little tired, definitely not stupid, but maybe not very in touch with themselves. I’m a big fan of Paranoid Park (which was turned into an awesome movie).

  7. Post Script: Tess’s comment above really tickled my interest, and caused me to write this post about precocious snark machines (in which I only scratch the surface of the topic). Thanks for giving me something to mull, now and in the future, Tess!

  8. That is a really well-written review. Honest, specific, and made me laugh aloud. Good job. I remember reading Nelson’s GIRL, but hadn’t heard of this one.

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