Jake Holden Barnes is depressed. He’s only a few months away from graduating high school, but his inattention and indifference have put him at risk of failing both gym and art—unfortunate, since Jake is one of the most prolific and talented artists at school. When the principal gives him the option to paint a mural on the school grounds to make up his art grade, Jake jumps at the chance. When he finishes, however, something is still missing from the piece. “You forgot to sign it,” he is informed by Smoke, the mysterious, attractive girl who is a guitarist in a local band. When the two see each other again at a party after prom, Smoke entices Jake to drop everything and go on a road trip in her van. They set out on an adventure that takes them clear across the country, along the way picking up a circus worker, a hitchhiker, and a fainting goat. They also learn more about each other and about themselves: Smoke reveals painful demons from her past, while Jake struggles with the crushing weight of his depression. Against a backdrop of the changing natural beauty of the American landscape, the two form a remarkable bond that transcends friendship. Rider’s realistic characters are complex, flawed individuals. Her portrayal of Jake’s depression is subtle and authentic, due in large part to the author’s personal experience with the affliction. Rider develops a clear sense of place with her depiction of the changing landscape between Oregon and New York. Some readers may feel that Rider dwells too much on introspection, as both Jake and Smoke seem to philosophize more than the average teen, and the prose can be repetitive, with the phrase “to be honest” almost reaching the centennial mark. However, readers will quickly forgive these minor infractions in favor of Rider’s memorable characters and vivid atmosphere, and many will hope for more from this promising young author.
An accomplished debut that will resonate far beyond a YA audience.