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