Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the book, Penguin Teen!
Seventeen-year-old Samantha Reed's life is like her home: perfectly kept and perfectly cared for. She's a straight A student with two jobs, her mother is a state senator, her best friend is on track for the Ivy Leagues, so, aside from the stress of wearing a ridiculous sailor outfit for her job at Breakfast Ahoy, Samantha is about as angst free as you can get for a teenager. And yet she spends hours looking out beyond the fence to her neighbor's yard, watching the chaos of the Garretts' large family, their chaos and confusion, wondering if that is a different kind of perfect than the one she knows.
Then one day she finds one of them has climbed up on her roof to watch with her.
That's the basic premise of My Life Next Door
, a story about first love and families. The interactions between Samantha and Jase Garrett have all the right beats to explain an authentic, if not enviably awesome, first love. I found it refreshing that their romance wasn't instantaneous but it also didn't take up the entirety of the novel with a "will they/won't they" dynamic. It was an interaction that was heavily laced with attraction but impromptu babysitting and other circumstances were responsible for them to getting to know each other, so when Samantha asks Jase to kiss her after a month of knowing each other you don't think it's too rushed or something dragged out for the novel's peak moment. It's the Baby Bear zone of being "just right" given the circumstances.
And while Jase is almost too good to be true: an extremely hot guy who is an all around handyman and works at his father's business when not playing the patient doting big brother or doing extensive training for a football scholarship? The only thing I didn't buy is why there wasn't a line of girls waiting to go out with him! But he shows his flaws and contradictions enough that he doesn't tip over into wishful thinking category, all the while staying firmly in the "boyfriend you dream about having" field.
There are a number of other refreshing change from most other contemporary YA romances.I love how Samantha has had boyfriends before and is able to compare the idea of dating out of convenience or "why not?" to the kind where there's intense attraction like with Jase. I love that Jase had his own previous relationships that are just there, not some specter to come up in the third act. I love that when two hormone addled teenagers get together sex is actually addressed. They talk
about it, they are interested in it, discuss the timing and protection, relate their embarrassing parental advice, and both start out as virgins but sex happens during the novel. I can count on one hand the amount of YA stories I read that managed to treat such a topic in a frank way without making the story all about it, so my infinite respect goes to Fitzpatrick for going there. But people who want a "clean teen read" can considered themselves duly warned. But it was definitely going to be a topic that comes up when one of the two protagonists come from a family of eight children.
And what about the Garrett family? Oh, the Garretts are far and away the best thing about this novel. There's the four-year-old George who gets the best lines with his somber recitation of facts and marriage proposals. Hard edged older sister Alice, the girl who breaks other guys' hearts but shows her true fierceness when she realizes Samantha has the power to hurt Jase. Fourteen-year-old Andy, who is going through her own introduction to dating. Baby Patsy with her talk of boobs and scatalogical humor. Even the ones given less time are still given the space and familiarity of other characters that it doesn't feel like they exist solely for Samantha to gawk at, and the warmth and inviting insanity of their home is something genuinely appealing even as you read about snakes escaping, children running amok, and seven different things going wrong at the same time.
Fitzpatrick uses a deft hand to write Samantha's first person narration as she grows to love the Garretts alongside her deepening feelings for Jase. There are an abundance of subtle tensions between her mother's exacting standards of perfection and the strange otherness that Jase's life offers, instances where Samantha's priorities end up pushing Jase away unintentionally. However, most of these conflicts are minor hiccups compared to other drama that goes on in the novel, such as Samantha's childhood friend, Tim, dealing with his addictions, or Samantha's mother running for office with a truly despicable sleazebag campaign manager who may or may not be cheating on her.
These added complications happen, and often do provide a multifaceted existence to the characters' lives in the story. After all, even if some people do end up ignoring everything else for the intensity of their first love, other things continue to operate regardless. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick has not yet managed the ability to blend her elements together as seamlessly as other YA contemporary juggernauts (examples of people who have nearly perfected this art: Sarah Dessen or Sara Zarr). For example, the matriachal Grace Reed comes off as more of a demonic, shrewish narcissist than the character I think Fitzpatrick wanted to portray, that of an uptight perfectionist who lets her ambitions and prejudice overshadow her daughter's well-being in spite of wanting the best for her. And although the other storylines intersect with the main one in many ways that improve the story, these side storyarcs also have their drawbacks.
Tim's character arc is the most egregious in terms of suspension of disbelief and tonal consistency. He was written this hopeless wreck who first got drunk at twelve, had done drugs for years (including a mention of coke), got kicked out of school and fired from many jobs for said drug habits, unrepentantly steals money from Samantha and his sister for his fixes, practically killing them in a terrible car accident before blacking out drunk to...suddenly becoming someone who manages to stave off his addiction with packs of cigarettes and pixy stix.
Tim at the beginning seemed to be a symbol of how class status and opportunities don't always mean the person can't be a wreck on the inside. One of the most poetic scenes was Samantha noticing that her mother's perception of the world would be to see Tim as the "upstanding" one in his nice clothes compared to Jase in his ratty greaser shirt, so she would never notice how Jase radiates overwhelming compassion and Tim casually crushes spiders underneath his heel. It was beautiful and telling, and yet... Halfway through the novel he is transformed into a fun supporting character, actually supportive too, who seemed only to need someone like Mr. Garrett to point him in the way of an AA meeting to get clean.
Do I think it's possible for a person do turn their life around that dramatically? Yes. But it doesn't work when the novel introduces something intensely complicated but then explains the journey from point A to point L with a wave of the hand. And, worse, it drags attention away from what the novel is really trying to explore by putting something weighty and problematic alongside it. For the record, I liked Tim as a character, I just wish his darkness didn't seem to come at the cost of making the rest of the character's problems less than his. It usually leads to things like this:"I hate knowing the right thing to do and not having the balls to do it. This sucks. This is payback, isn't it? You wouldn't believe the things I've done, the tests I've cheated on, the rules I've broken, the times I've fucked up, the people I've screwed over."
"Oh knock it off already, man, with the 'nobody knows the horrors I've seen' routine. It's getting really old," Jase snaps.
Yes, exactly Jase. This is why you are my favorite. Well, that, and everything else. My Life Next Door
provides a poignant look at the explorations of first love, especially the kind of love that develops in a place different from one's familiar surroundings. For readers who want to immerse themselves in Samantha's acceptance by the Garrets and enjoy the antics of a large family, this novel provides a humorous and nuanced read. She manages to imbue characterization into most of the eight children with only a few lines, making them memorable or at least natural to see how some are prominent and others on the periphery of Samantha's attention.
However, those who are sensitive to a story's tone may find a disconnect between the emotional tenderness of the romance Samantha has with Jase (and by proxy, his family) in comparison to the rest of the novel's weighter topics. There is an uneven payoff in the ongoing subplots, which only gets more prominent as the story progresses. These disconnects are not enough to ruin the good foundation that Fitzpatrick sets up in having the reader invested in Samantha and Jase's happiness, but it does run the risk of making the novel's end less than satisfactory. Some subplots are left in mid-conflict, and the major "choice" that the tagline hints at comes in the last quarter of the novel, which doesn't give it the time to be properly resolved after the pacing of the previous chapters. Nevertheless, the novel manages to put you in Samantha's position of being an observer to something different and unknown, drawing you into the tumultuous events in a way that entertains and keeps pages turning. Even if it's not perfect, My Life Next Door
is a welcome addition most readers wouldn't mind borrowing a cup of sugary teenage romance from.