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How My Summer Went Up in Flames by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Synopsis: Rosie’s always been impulsive. She didn’t intend to set her cheating ex-boyfriend’s car on fire. And she never thought her attempts to make amends could be considered stalking. So when she’s served with a temporary restraining order on the first day of summer vacation, she’s heartbroken—and furious.
To put distance between Rosie and her ex, Rosie’s parents send her on a cross-country road trip with responsible, reliable neighbor Matty and his two friends. Forget freedom of the road, Rosie wants to hitchhike home and win back her ex. But her determination starts to dwindle with each passing mile. Because Rosie’s spark of anger? It may have just ignited a romance with someone new…

Review: I’ve noticed it in my own reading over the years, as it pertains to my favorite authors, but never so acutely before becoming a book reviewer: The best kind of authors are those with multi-faceted interests, who expand their storytelling beyond what we would expect in the first pages of their work, be it in nonfiction or fiction, a nonfiction author bringing more depth to their subject with other information about other subjects surprisingly related to it, and novelists digging deep into their own lives to color their characters, and giving their own interests to their characters. This may seem to be such an obvious thing, but it’s not easy to do well. Fortunately, there are a lot of authors who have come through to the other side after doing it to show us how it’s done, how it should be done. Jennifer Salvato Doktorski is one of them.

Like J.J. Howard, the author of That Time I Joined the Circus, Doktorski is also a first-time YA novelist (there’s a growing number of them this year, to our benefit), and just like J.J. Howard, her interests make a novel in How My Summer Went Up in Flames, which is about a summer road trip. It’s typical in many novels, but when have you ever read one in which the protagonist, 17-year-old Rosie, has to leave the state, New Jersey in this case, in order to stay away from Joey, her ex-boyfriend, whose car she allegedly set on fire after finding out that he cheated on her? This has led to a temporary restraining order against her, as well as a pending court date. But she’s not in the best state of mind. Yes, she set on fire on his driveway the box containing his things that she collected, but the emotions of teenage love, especially first-time teenage love, run high, and she thinks she wants to get back together with him. Later on, when she’s asked in Texas what she wants to do with her life, she remembers that she thought she’d be Joey’s wife, and they’d raise kids in their New Jersey town. Now what? How does she begin to define herself as an individual when she’s defined herself all this time as being a couple with Joey?  It takes a road trip, as mentioned, as well as her next-door neighbor and de facto family member Matty, and his friends Spencer and Logan, brothers who are the offspring of a nasty, alcoholic father. Logan is spearheading the road trip because he’s going to Arizona State University, seemingly for good, never to return to New Jersey, wanting to leave behind this horrible life.

On her blog on her official website, Doktorski’s latest post is about her love of road trips, and the road trip she took in her twenties that inspired the New Jersey-to-Arizona-via-Pennsylvania-Virginia-Tennessee-West-Virginia-Arkansas-Texas-New Mexico-California route presented in How My Summer Went Up in Flames. If you’re wondering where California fits in when Arizona’s next to Nevada, well, that’s all the more reason to pick up this novel and see.

But it’s more than that.  So much more. Doktorski has so richly detailed not only the road trip, but all who are involved, and their families too, mainly Rosie’s family, who Rosie describes early on: “…at our house, we yell when we’re happy, we yell when we we’re upset, we yell when we want someone to pass the remote. It’s what we Catalanos do." She not only establishes right away that Rosie is not the kind to deliberately set cars on fire or be that kind of troublemaker, but her writing also shows how much she cares about these characters, in turn making us want to know more, which is always a delicate balance in novels. There’s even a moment at the bus station in Nashville when Rosie, trying to get back home to New Jersey after deciding that she wants no more of this road trip, meets a man who calls himself Hope, and instantly, we’re curious about where he came from, what his life has been like before this meeting. No, Rosie doesn’t change his life nor he hers, but Doktorski’s writing gets so deep into you that you want to follow alongside her, picking up the character threads she leaves behind, and weave them together on your own. It’s not that Doktorski irresponsibly leaves them behind. Far from it. She has found this way to tell her story, so Hope is only given two pages, but he never leaves you, no matter how further along you are on this road trip.

For potential readers’ safety, I must issue an Extreme Grin Warning. There will be moments in this novel when you’ll feel like you’re hopped up on sugar, wanting to know what happens next, and also reveling in such descriptions as when Rosie and Logan and Spencer and Matty manage to score tickets to the Grand Ole Opry: “After dinner—the ribs were truly amazing—we head to
Ryman Auditorium to see a line-up that includes the Charlie Daniels Band (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” never gets old, apparently), Lee Roy Parnell, Diamond Rio, and some other acts I’ve never heard of and never, ever want to see again.” Ok, so Rosie is not at all into country music, but it’s the kind of road trip where you might be familiar with country music or you might be into caves and feel happy reading about Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia. Put simply, if you’re not going on a road trip any time soon this summer, you are. This is your road trip. Low cost and lots of fun. Also, make sure you have Google handy because like me, you might look up Flintstones Bedrock City in Williams, Arizona, where the group goes to, and look at photos of it, distracting you from the story for a few minutes. It actually exists. I’d never heard of it before this. But it’s there. Fred and Barney, too.

Doktorski is going to be a major name in YA fiction. From How My Summer Went Up in Flames alone, I know it. The laughter she triggers comes organically from the characters, from their personalities, from their reactions, such as when Rosie thinks she’s being attacked by a bat during a tour in Luray Caverns. I desperately want more from her, and it turns out I don’t have much longer to wait. Doktorski has worked hard enough to have not only How My Summer Went Up in Flames come out in May, but also her second novel, Famous Last Words, being released in July. At least one YA novel a year from her would be a blessing. I hope it becomes a regular thing.

Review by: Rory

Rating: 5/5 DIAMONDS
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