The Plot: The night of graduation, Rebecca’s boyfriend James breaks up with her. It’s a preemptive move; Rebecca, school salutatorian, is headed off to college when summer is over. James, drop out, is staying behind in their small town.
The next day, not far from the field where James told Rebecca it’s over, a body of a young woman is found.
No one knows it yet, but it’s Amelia Anne Richardson.
Two stories are entwined: that of Rebecca’s summer after high school. She is desperate to leave behind her small town and their small minds, yet doesn’t want to lose James. Amelia’s story is that of the months before her body is found: a college senior just discovering a whole new world, a world she cannot wait to enter.
Amelia’s story ends one way. How will Rebecca’s story end?
The Good: Dual stories! Love it. “The night before Amelia Anne Richardson bled her life away on a parched dirt road outside of town, I bled out my dignity in the back of a pickup truck under a star-pricked sky.”
Rebecca is a girl trapped in her small town, who has always been crystal clear about what she wants: to leave. “Trapped” is a strong word: it’s the town where her parents live, no more or less, and they are supportive of her dreams for college. There is no pressure from them to stay or to return. When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure what to make of James; it’s the night of graduation and James breaks up with her right after they have sex. Already, in my head, I painted a picture of James as mean, or cruel, or abusive; and Rebecca as dating a local boy just “for now,” with hurt feelings and pride, no more, no less.
I was wrong. Rebecca loves James; he loves her. The break up was more a declaration, by James, that he knows she is going to be leaving him behind come Fall and become that guy, that high school boyfriend left behind in the rear view mirror. Rebecca isn’t stupid; she realizes that, also, and it’s colored some of her interactions with James in the past year. She wants to go; she doesn’t want to lose James. He doesn’t want to hold her back; he doesn’t want to lose her. For various reasons, he is stuck in the town with no choice about his future. The knowledge this is the last summer haunts every moment together or apart, as, too, does the dead girl haunt Rebecca.
The reader knows her name, Amelia Anne Richardson. The reader knows her story. In some ways, it’s similar to Rebecca’s own story. Amelia, at college, is discovering a new path for herself, acting, not business, and it opens up a world and future she didn’t even realize she wanted. Like Rebecca, she will be leaving something known behind. Like Rebecca, there is a boyfriend, and this young man, like James, realizes that his girlfriend’s dreams may not include him. The main difference is that Amelia is so eager to have her life start, while, suddenly, Rebecca — I don’t want to say she isn’t sure. She wants to go. She just seems to be putting herself into a type of emotional limbo. It’s as if she realizes that her childhood is being left behind, and suddenly, she doesn’t want that to happen.
Rebecca is an interesting character; as I said, for some reason, at the beginning I didn’t realize the depth of her connection to James. Despite that, Rebecca wants to leave her small town and I liked that. Both Rebecca and Amelia are unapologetically ambitious in what they want to do. Here is Rebecca: “[I]t wasn’t just about getting away. It was about not coming back. It wasn’t just the size and sensibility of this place that made it unbearable, but its pull — the weird magnetism that could sap your ambition, clip your wings, leave you inert and fascinated and sinking ever deeper into the choking quicksand of small-town life.” As the summer unwinds, as Rebecca faces some choices, I wondered — how much of what she does, or doesn’t do, is driven by this? About making sure she wouldn’t go back?
They mystery of the dead girl by the road; for most of the summer, not even her name is known. The reader knows more, knows her alive, knows her as Amelia, and as Amelia’s life moves to the time and place of her death, I kept wondering: who did she end up there? And why? Rebecca wonders about this dead girl, whose body was found not to far from where she and James were together. I had half-guessed parts of Amelia’s death; was surprised by others; and was also stunned by Rebecca’s role.
What I adored most about this book? The sentences; Rebecca’s observations; the way she told her story. “Innocence can only last so long, especially that kind that comes from growing up sheltered by quiet neighborhoods, immaculate concrete sidewalks, so much nothingness for miles around. . . . Same faces, same streets, day in and day out, eyes that never witness anything more desolate than those empty, gravel-strewn county roads.” Or, this: “our knowledge has no memory. We have always lived here; what we know has always beens.”
Because of the language; because of the complexity of James; because of Rebecca herself; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.