Monday, May 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Heartbreak River'

The Book: Heartbreak River

The Author: Tricia Mills

How I Found It: I was looking at bargain books and this one was one of them. Looked interesting, so I gave it a shot.

The Review: After reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I wanted something as far from that as possible, just to take a break for a bit. I decided to go with a YA romance (sort of).

Alex Landon has grown up around Grayton River, and helping to run her grandparents' whitewater rafting business means that the river is her domain, her thing. Or at least, it should be. Ever since her father died in a tragic rafting accident, Alex is petrified of the water, and worse yet, she blames herself for his death. When her father returned from serving with the National Guard in Iraq, he wasn't the same, and Alex wonders what more she could have done to save him.

As the season starts, Alex is faced with another problem besides her fear of the water--the return of her childhood best friend and ex-boyfriend, Sean, whom she hasn't seen in nine months due to his parents' divorce. Alex has mixed feelings about his return--not only might she still have feelings for him, but she said things she can't take back the last time they saw each other. Even as Alex considers apologizing to Sean and getting back together with him, there's other things to consider--is Alex's coworker, Tommy, looking for more than just flirting? Does Sean really have a girlfriend back in Denver? What does Alex's cousin Mala have going on with Daniel, another coworker? And will Alex ever be able to raft again, to forgive herself for her father's death?

I will admit upfront that this wasn't the greatest YA novel I've ever read. I think the examination of a child's grief after the death of a parent has been done in more detail and better by other authors (I can think of Sarah Dessen's The Truth about Forever in particular). I think the book was shortchanged because it was simply too short. There is a lot going on and not enough space to explore it all, which I'm sure is the fault of manuscript length requirements by the publisher. I've read another book published by Razorbill that was about the same length, so I'm sure there's a word count or some such that can't be exceeded. Still, either the book should have been longer in order to properly address everything, or the subplots should have been cut entirely.

What I felt should have been changed or addressed more: I think that Alex had too many coworkers, for one thing; the supporting cast was very large and sometimes this became tiresome. Everyone always had to be accounted for. Some of them actually had interesting motivations that I would have liked to see dealt with in greater depth: for example, the insecurities of Alex's boy-crazy cousin Mala. It is brought up more than once that Mala hates being compared to Alex, that she has gotten the image of the "bad girl" while Alex is the Goody Two-Shoes. Mala seems to seek validation with men rather than attempting to address her problems with herself and fix it. Though Alex does tell her once that she doesn't need to be out with a different guy every other week, Mala simply says she wants to and they leave it at that. I would have liked if Mills could have delved further into Mala's issues with Alex and what was obviously Mala's poor self-image. It could have raised an important topic that isn't really addressed enough in YA novels-- that you don't need a guy in order to feel worth something. Even the ones that do raise that point have the girl ending up with a guy in the end.

While Alex's relationship with Sean was pretty realistic, we only get a few glimpses at what it was before Alex's father passed away. In order to fully believe them as a couple in the story and to fully root for them, I wanted to know what exactly their relationship had been before it changed. I didn't think I'd seen enough of them in order for me to really pull for them as a couple. I also wanted to see more of how Alex had reacted to the news of her father's death when it happened--for something that really motivates Alex's actions in the book, we surprisingly didn't get a flashback or really much information at all on the immediate aftermath of her father's death. I felt that should have been explored more; it would have made Alex's grief more palpable and maybe would have brought her feelings about the death into sharper focus. I also didn't like the tacking on of another tragedy at the end just to get Alex to open up to her feelings about her father's death. It made the victim of the tragedy less of a character and more a device for the author's point, and it was blatant.

While I feel the book could have done with more depth and less characters, it was a decent read. The dialogue was realistic and Alex's problems were, as well. She was an interesting narrator with pretty relatable feelings--any teenager who's had a crush at one point will understand her wavering and hesitant attraction to Sean. Overall, a decent but fairly forgettable YA read that has been done better by other authors; I recommend the aforementioned The Truth about Forever instead.

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