Author: Stephanie Guerra
Genre: YA, contemporary, tough stuff
Release Date: April 2012 (expected)
Summary: Stella Chavez is your classic good girl: straight As, clean-cut boyfriends, and soccer trophies . You’d never guess that Stella’s dad was a drug addict who walked out when she was a kid. Or that inside, Stella wishes for something more.
New girl Ruby Caroline seems like Stella’s polar opposite: cursing, smoking, and teetering in sky-high heels . But with Ruby, Stella gets a taste of another world—a world in which parents act like roommates, college men are way more interesting than high school boys, and there is nothing that shouldn’t be tried once.
It’s not long before Stella finds herself torn: between the best friend she’s ever had and the friends she’s known forever, between her family and her own independence, between who she was and who she wants to be.
But Ruby has a darker side, a side she doesn’t show anyone—not even Stella. As Stella watches her friend slowly unravel, she will have to search deep inside herself for the strength to be a true friend, even if it means committing the ultimate betrayal.
☆: 3.5/5 – a solid YA debut.
Review: A solid YA debut to be sure, but even though this book goes into the “tough stuff” (as the sub-genre of contemporary YA lit has been now dubbed), it goes surprisingly into the darker areas of sexual behavior/lifestyles and yet it lacks a lot of heart. While this is a cautionary tale (you probably don’t want to end up as another Dolores Haze), I just felt it lacked a lot in terms of actual emotional connection where it needed to be the most. “Torn” is an engrossing read, but in the end, fails to deliver where it’s needed most.
Perhaps it was the passive tone taken by Stella as she narrates us through her misadventures through her last year of high school with newcomer Ruby, but I just wasn’t feeling any kind of emotional connection. And ideally, I should have – I too am a single-parented child, though I don’t have any siblings, and my mother still works very hard (ridiculously so) to provide for the family. I also am fatherless, though that is by choice. I should have connected with Stella emotionally and identified with her at least on those very basic similar levels, but I think because Guerra only really went into details about how Stella felt about her father (and only significantly at the end of the book), I lacked that connection. While she had some flares of rage at the fact that she’s had to become a second mother to her younger siblings while her mother works her tail off to make sure they’re provided for, it wasn’t nearly enough as it should have been, realistically. I know that I’ve felt some similar feelings in terms of single parenting and loneliness, and they were oceans compared to the mere puddles that Guerra tapped. This is one area where I feel that Guerra had HUGE untapped potential, but perhaps in order to advance the main arc with Stella and Ruby, she might have scrapped it. I’m not sure what happened there, but it definitely needed another draft in terms of the character building department in order to make Stella a believable teen with those feelings.
Stella narrates with incredible passivity, even when angry. That’s what amazed me the most – the most explosive parts of the book still felt incredibly watered down, and I think maybe a POV switch might have remedied this (between her and Ruby).
The world was believable, otherwise. It was just Stella’s reactions and how she lived her life that made it a little too easy for me to read.
As for the characters, aside from Stella, it’s a balance between typical high school mean girls (Stella’s kind-of-ex-friends and the stereotypical artsy/rebellious/etc new girl with absent parent syndrome who doesn’t want to fit in in terms of Ruby. While Ruby was eventually punched up enough to be larger than life (and ended up as my favorite character when all was said and done), it took well into half of the book for that to happen. Hell, it took the first third of the book for me to really start getting interested at all. That shouldn’t happen. Authors: remember that your hook should ideally be in your first sentence. Failing that, your first paragraph or chapter. But I was well into a third of this book before the hook finally sank in.
What was a delightful surprise was the path Guerra took with Ruby in terms of her relationship with Kenneth – in terms of a sexually based lifestyle. Blood sport and knifeplay are very quietly talked about in our culture as a whole, but I found it interesting that while so much of the rest of the novel was bland, Guerra chose to talk about blood sport/knifeplay and make it more horrifying over the fact that Ruby was, even consensually, being taken advantage of by Kenneth, an adult. Then again, movies with sex get R ratings while people can be beheaded and it can get an PG-13 rating. That says loads about where we are with American culture right now. While taking advantage of people in relationships is not cool, had Ruby been an adult and still consenting, the knifeplay bit wouldn’t have really bothered me. But because she wasn’t, it did, and I think that’s what Guerra was really trying to do to make the whole relationship with Kenneth really hit home. And it worked. Yet at the same time, that too was a really deep ocean she could have tapped but didn’t – or at least, not as much as she could have. She could have taken it really over the top in terms of Ruby, Kenneth and their sexual peccadilloes, but chose not to, and I’m still baffled as to what stayed her hand, once again losing a potentially very high emotional connection with the audience.
So all in all, this is a very difficult book to parse out. While most of it was so very bland and so much of it was stuff we’ve had covered before, there was some serious brave new world territory struck by Guerra in terms of sex and teens. And I have to commend her for that. So, 3.5/5 stars. Had it not been so glazed over all the time, it might have gotten a higher score.
Final verdict? I think there are enough “stranger danger” and “tough stuff” books out there, but just for the teens dealing with sex bit, it’s worth the read. “Torn” is out April 3rd, 2012 through Marshall Cavendish in North America, so be sure to check it out then.