Needing a break from mounting family stress, 17-year-old Oliver leaves Chicago to spend the summer with his aunt in Boulder and encounters the alluring but distant Essa.
As their stoner mother flits from relationship to relationship, Essa is the default caregiver to her sister, the tenacious and gifted 9-year-old Puck. Rather than seeking escape through marijuana as her mother and friends choose, Essa is drawn toward Zen Buddhism and wilderness orienteering. Oliver feels out of place in crunchy Boulder, but he does relate to Essa’s sense of responsibility for her sister; his suffers from a severe mental illness. The two bond over this shared understanding, and Essa introduces Oliver to meditation and the challenging mountain survival games she plays with her friends. On one of these expeditions, Puck sneaks along and isn’t discovered until the group is too deep to turn back. That night, Puck disappears, and Essa is left in the groundless terror of the unknown, desperately searching for any clues that will lead her to Puck, hopefully still alive. The third-person narration alternates focus between Essa and Oliver in short chapters, making for a fast-paced read. Well-developed, diverse supporting characters surround the white protagonists, contributing insights and struggles that enrich the overall plot.
Blending romance, thrills, drama, and philosophy, this novel delivers a strong message about being present with life even when it hurts. (Fiction. 14-18)