Along for the Ride
by Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen, in her best book to date, captures the essence of a transformational summer as Auden West prepares to go to college. Auden developed insomnia three years ago, when her parents’ marriage began to fall apart. Her mother, Dr. Victoria West, known nationwide as an expert on women’s roles in Renaissance literature, had begun to overshadow her husband, author of one well-received novel (nominated for the National Book Award). Each night, Auden takes refuge in Ray’s 24-hour diner. After thinking about her older brother backpacking around the world, and the “normal” high school things she’d missed out on in her rigorous pursuit of academic excellence, Auden decides to spend the summer before college in a beach town where her father heads a college creative writing department. She can hear the ocean from the house where she stays with her father, her stepmother, Heidi, and their new baby, Thisbe. (Her father, who named Auden for his favorite poet, picked a Shakespeare character’s name for his newborn.)
It is a summer of discoveries. Heidi turns out to be much more than a woman “whose strengths were her constant self-maintenance.” Watching her father put his novel-writing ahead of his baby daughter gives Auden insights into her own relationship with him (and also some unsettling similarities they share). And, even though she loves and admires her mother, Auden discovers that being away from her helps the teen get some perspective on the ways she’d like to be different from her mother, too. Then Auden meets Eli Stock from the town bike shop, who keeps showing up at just the right time, to calm Isby (as Auden calls Thisbe) and to introduce Auden to the best source for late-night coffee in the area. Thus begins their “quest” to complete all of the things Auden has missed (“Never before had it been so obvious that although I’d spent my entire life learning, there was a lot of stuff I still didn’t know”), such as food fights, delivering newspapers, bowling, and… learning to ride a bike. (There is also a “sleepover,” but it takes place offstage; this book is, in my view, fine for ages 12-up.) Auden’s mother thinks people cannot change; Eli thinks they can. Auden chooses to explore the possibilities with Eli, and the results are uplifting beyond measure.