I am so happy when I’m browsing shelves–physical or electronic–and I take a chance on a book and then fall in love. That’s how it was with Emily Horner’s A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend. I was out of books that were grabbing me, so I checked the Books Available Now (or whatever it’s called) option in my library’s e-book browser and started searching. And while the premise sounded good, I’ll admit it was the cover that pulled me in.
And then it was the words.
Julia, Cass’ best friend and perhaps the first and only person she has ever been in love with, is dead (car accident) before the book opens. Her death is literally a turning-life-upside-down moment for Cass and for the drama kids who were Julia’s friends, and maybe Cass’ friends as well. The question of whether they are or not is one of the big threads of the book, and Cass’ doubts and anxieties about that have a very real, solid truth to them.
The story is, essentially, a beautifully subtle, layered exploration of all the ripples that spread out from Julia’s death, primarily for Cass, but also for the other teens. The kids decide to put on the play that Julia was writing when she died–a musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. Julia is in every word of the play, she is there in the set building, in the costume design and creation, in the rehearsals, and in all the back-scene dynamics of the theater. And what we get to see is how the characters deal simultaneously with that presence and with her absence.
We also get to see Cass dealing with her own, personal loss of a best friend, Julia’s boyfriend’s accusation that Cass wanted Julia to be something other than a friend, and Cass’ own uncertainty about whether or not that was true. And we get to see Cass do this from the seat of her bicycle–as she takes the summer road trip that Julia had planned for the two of them into a solitary bike ride across the country. Just Cass, her bike, a tent, and an emergency credit card–and, oh, yes, Julia’s ashes.
This book has so many layers, and they are all interwoven beautifully into one integrated story. The chapters are divided into Now and Then titles–Now being the last few days of summer and the preparation to put on Julia’s play, Then being Cass escape on her bike, earlier in the summer. I am not a big fan, typically, of this kind of structure–I find myself getting confused and often don’t want to step from one storyline into the other. Absolutely not a problem here. Horner does a beautiful job of making the transitions smooth and quickly pulling us back into the tension thread of the “new” plot thread. Plus, somehow, she manages to make the reader feel that both storylines are leading to the same ending, the resolution that we are hoping for, but that we don’t dare assume or expect will happen. One of the big themes of the story is that, when someone dies suddenly–especially at a young age–any certainty you had about life having a safety net pretty much vanishes, and that translates into not trusting that these characters will win a happy ending. Which, even as you see relationships strengthen and friendships deepens, maintains a wonderful page-turning tension. Just beautiful.
The other thing I love about this book is that there are so many drops of things that Horner could have turned into an issue, could have focused the entire story on, but…didn’t. Cass and her family are Quakers–their belief in following one’s need is one reason behind Cass’ parents acceptance that she needs to take this bike trip, alone. It also becomes a piece of Cass’ wondering about the play itself–as her mother says, it’s not like you expect a play called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad to be without violence. But this book is about someone who happens to be Quaker, not about a Quaker girl, if that makes sense. Cass’ thoughts about her own identify, whether or not she is gay, are not the point of the story–the point is that Julia’s abrupt exit from her life is making Cass look at everything in a new way–her sexual preference, her religion, her friendships, her future. Everything.
Because that’s what loss does.
I absolutely love Cass’ character. She is a wonderful mix of thoughful and impulsive, someone who mostly thinks before she acts, often too much and for too long, but who every now and then just….wow! Acts. And Horner’s choice to put half this story on the bicycle is brilliant, because it allows Cass to be both active and introspective, to be thinking and doing–all at the same time. The pacing and plot of the story rolls beautifully, with several Oh, no! moments that I never saw coming. And quite a few Oh, yeah! moments that were equally as surprising, but always, always right.
Definitely a recommendation for your to-read list.