Review: Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

Famous Last WordsTitle: Famous Last Words

Author: Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

Genre: YA Contemporary

Publication Date: July 2, 2013 (Henry Holt BFYR)

Source: ARC given to me by Christina of A Reader of Fictions

Synopsis: In Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, sixteen-year-old Samantha D’Angelo has death on the brain. Her summer internship at the local newspaper has her writing obituaries instead of soaking up the sun at the beach. Between Shelby, Sam’s boy-crazy best friend; her boss Harry, a true-blue newspaper man; and AJ, her fellow “intern scum” (aka the cute drummer for a band called Love Gas), Sam has her hands full. But once she figures out what—or who—is the best part of her summer, will she mess it all up?

As Sam learns her way around both the news room and the real world, she starts to make some momentous realizations about politics, ethics, her family, romance, and most important—herself.

2.5/5 stars – Fun tale of journalism and death obits, but the main character is such a book-killer!

English is my thing, but journalism/media is my other thing. I spent three years in journalism classes in high school, two of them on the school newspaper and one of them as senior editor. Media itself is my fandom and my terrible people skills are the main reason journalism isn’t my focus in life. Doktorski nails the feel of working as a newsman/newswoman, but her main character nearly kills the book and definitely makes it a drag to read.

Whether you’re writing for a school paper or a real live community paper, there’s the looming threat of deadlines, the desperation to make sure your facts are right so you don’t get chewed out by a higher-up who found blatant errors in your article(s) (you would not believe the way I had to chew out one person whose articles were impossible to read and riddled with errors), and the sense of community that develops from spending so much time under crunch time together. I hardly miss the part of newspapering where we had to beg for ads, but Doktorski really taps into everything I loved about the experience in general.

Not only is Doktorski a skilled writer (errant whisper-scream or two and female characterization issues aside), but the plot she weaves in slowly is fun too. The mayor possibly indulging in identity theft or saying one of his friends is employed by him so they can earn money for doing absolutely nothing? Beautiful! This doesn’t get much focus until the latter half of the novel, but even this intriguing story and the work they put into it reminds me of good times doing the same stuff in pursuit of stories. It specifically brings to mind a scandal in which a few football players at my high school faked their addresses to play ball with us and eventually got found out. THAT was a fun one to keep track of, let me tell you.

So what holds this book back from being a perfect, fluffy indulgence in my media geekery and love of journalism? Its own main character, Samantha D’Angelo. She fails to kill her own book, but she wounds it heavily enough that it needs a long hospital stay to recouperate.

Maybe we’re supposed to look at Sam’s terrible treatment of her party-loving BFF, how she judges Shelby for flirting with guys but won’t hold herself to the same standards because reasons, and her odd hatred of her female “competition” and still hope she gets everything she’s working hard for. It’s clear she really does have talent and earns what she gets, but when she’s such a thoroughly terrible person, it’s difficult to want her to keep her job, get the big story, or get the guy whose romance with her isn’t even all that well-developed. She has her nice moments, but overall, she’s a shallow-minded, badly developed character.

For instance, any girl related to a guy she’s into one way or another is demonized whether or not she ever speaks to them–and in the case of one girl related to her love interest, they literally never say a word to one another and yet Sam hates her. One could call that realistic because internalized misogyny is very real, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be here. Why not leave it out to set an example of how we don’t have to hate other women over such asinine stuff or take a little time to make Sam think about why she feels that way?

And Shelby. Oh, Shelby. I have an irrational hatred of characters with that name and yet I side with her over Sam every single time. She’s clumsily written in the first place, but Sam’s over-the-top treatment of her as a burden to be hoisted off onto someone else is grating. Sam honestly tries to force/trick Shelby into getting a job so Shelby won’t annoy her at work anymore and she can use Shelby as an “inside man” on a story Sam wants to cover–and she never plans to inform Shelby of any of this.

(Also, I find it really odd Penn State comes up as a school Sam might want to go to and its major, nation-rocking scandal doesn’t come up. That’s just me.)

Internalized misogyny and main characters who nearly kill their own books may be an issue of the author’s and not just her books; according to friends’ reviews, the same happens in Doktorski’s other novel How My Summer Went Up in Flames. I’d love to read more of her work because her writing is stellar when people aren’t whisper-screaming, but I’m not exactly going to run to grab a book I know is going to include elements I hate because the author has a history of it and reviews make it clear it’s happening.


2 thoughts on “Review: Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

  1. Sounds like this was pretty much the same experience I had, with a bit more rage on your side. She writes so well, but then she does THIS with her heroines. WHYYYYY. Such a damn waste.

    Also, if you’re going for internalized misogyny, which admittedly can happen when you’re upset, wouldn’t you want to show her learning something? For example she could have ended up talking to that other girl and realizing that she’s actually a wonderful person. but no.

    Shelby definitely does make bad choices, and she’s not a great friend, either, but I still sided with her over Sam. At least she actually likes Sam, whereas Sam hangs out with Shelby because reasons.

    Maybe Doktorski wrote the book before the scandal? She could have been sitting on it awhile, esp since she had two books come out at once.

    • I think how well she writes for the most part is why I was even ragier (though the treatment of the ladies didn’t help). SO MUCH FRUSTRATION. Every now and then, I saw little pockets where it would have fit if she pondered why she thought of other girls that way or could have talked to one, but those little pockets went unused. Even more frustration! I’d still like to hug Shelby despite my irrational hatred of characters with that name.

      I imagine the bulk of the book was written pre-scandal or at the very beginning of it. Since the book came out this summer, the Sandusky trial happened last summer, and the publishing process is slow as can be (I usually see 1 or 1.5 years between deal and publication, sometimes 2), I am 99% certain it was in some stage of the editing process during the trial. That would be a pretty good time to work in a mention because by that point, the university’s reputation was already in tatters and had been for some time. It was what came to mind when someone said “Penn State” and the other person paid any attention to the news. (I frighten myself with how much thought I put into this, but poke one of my media obsessions like the Penn State scandal and I do strange things.)

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