Wednesday, April 17, 2013

review: if he had been with me

Laura Nowlin
Sourcebooks Fire
A few things to start off with, the first being that I really don't know how to review this book. It sits in extremes for me; there was a lot I loved, but there was also a fair amount that didn't sit well with me and at least one scene that I skipped over entirely. Secondly though, author Laura Nowlin is an incredible writer and I'll definitely be looking for whatever she publishes next.

If He Had Been With Me is a story stretched out over four years, of Autumn and Finny, who used to be best friends but aren't anymore. Though they were inseparable all through middle school, it's now high school and pretty-but-weird Autumn has formed a close knit group with other misfits while Finny (Finn, to everyone but Autumn) is athletic, preppy, and popular. Despite the closeness of their families and the fact that they spend every major holiday seated around the same kitchen table, Autumn and Finny don't seem to have much in common anymore. Finny's dating a popular girl while Autumn has a long-term boyfriend, king of the misfits. Of course, it's obvious to the reader, if not to Autumn herself (the book is from her POV) that she belongs with, and is in love with, her boy-next-door, Finny. And though it's inevitable that Autumn eventually comes to this conclusion on her own, she spends an inordinately long amount of the book with Jamie, being in love with him. Or at least trying to convince herself that she's in love with him. The two have plans to get married, buy a house, have kids, and though Jamie's all in, it's obvious that Autumn is only in because she regards her feelings for Finny as a fantasy that can never come true; in real life, good-enough is all you get, she reasons.

Autumn is not a very happy person. (I could get into more detail about this but it would ruin certain aspects of the book and its plot, I think.)

This is an incredible sort of book. The writing is amazing, the characters are so, so well done, and the whole thing has a very hazy, beautiful but inevitably tragic feel to it. The book's strange attitude toward sex (it wasn't entirely casual, but it wasn't really not-casual either, so I'm having a hard time landing on an accurate word for how this book handled the issue) bothered me, and I found myself skipping certain scenes, one in particular. This is not a book about sex, but it did play a role in the story. In addition to this, Autumn's insistence that she's in love with both Finny and her boyfriend Jamie bothered me. It reminded me of all the reasons I hated the movie Doctor Zhivago. For much of the book Autumn remains oblivious to her own feelings toward Finny, and this got old, especially the longer she stayed in her lukewarm relationship with Jamie. Autumn is a needy character, but for some reason it took quite a while before I realized just how needy.

Though part of the ending is obvious from the beginning (almost from the title, really), but another part of the ending came as a shock. For those who've read the book, yes, it was definitely foreshadowed, but I found it hard to believe that such a sweetly beautiful book would actually take that route. I root for happy endings, and this one shook me. Though it's possible to view the ending in a hopeful way it's hard for me to move beyond Autumn's actions and reasoning. So like I said, this was a difficult book for me. It's a well-written and beautiful story with love as the huge, overarching theme. But there were aspects of the book that bothered me -- it wasn't enough to make me abandon the book, but definitely enough to affect my feelings toward it -- and the ending felt both obvious and incredibly, incredibly depressing. (And in at least one respect, unrealistic.)

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