As if starting high school weren't bad enough, Reyna Fey has to do so at a new school without her best friends. Reyna's plan is to keep her head down, help her father recover from the car accident that almost took his life, and maybe even make some friends. And then Olive Barton notices her. Olive is not exactly the kind of new friend Reyna has in mind. The boys make fun of her, the girls want to fight her, and Olive seems to welcome the challenge. There's something about Olive that Reyna can't help but like. But when Reyna learns Olive's secret, she must decide whether it's better to be good friends with an outcast or fake friends with the popular kids. . . .before she loses Olive forever.
Thanks to a zoning change in her town, Reyna Fey is forced to transfer from her beloved Ridgeway High where all her friends are, to the town's other, less popular high school, Belltown High. While her old buds only increase in popularity at Ridgeway, Reyna is now odd new girl at Belltown... at least until Olive Barton forcefully introduces herself. Olive is pretty low on the social totem pole, thanks to her somewhat abrasive way with people. After that first introduction, Reyna describes Olive as "blunt, headstrong, and unapologetically honest". Yet no matter how annoying Reyna might find Olive on a surface level, there's something deeper there to the odd girl that peaks Reyna's curiosity, so a tenuous friendship develops.
...It was nice to know she would never lie to me. Whereas I told a hundred lies every day, lies like I feel fine and I don't mind.
Over the course of some months, Olive shares more and more secrets with Reyna. That sense of trust between them slowly starts to teach Reyna what true friendship is meant to be like, something she realizes she doesn't quite have with her old acquaintances back at Ridgeway. Reyna starts to see that while Belltown might not be the "cool" school to be in, the students there develop a level of strength not seen at Ridgeway because of what they are put through. For some, the biggest challenge is surviving a homophobic teacher who unabashedly gay-bashes any student he chooses, with seemingly no fear of job dismissal!
Reyna sees another instance of administration gone wrong during a Halloween parade at school where Olive is called out & disciplined for dressing as the man from the "American Gothic" painting. She's wielding a fake pitchfork so she's considered "armed" at school, yet nothing is done about the popular girl who decides to do "sexy cheerleader" with all her teen bits half hanging out. With the unpopular kids feeling like they're fighting a losing battle, there's a good deal of teen depression woven into the plot. It's not heavy-handed though, just enough to have plenty of readers out there nodding in relatable remembrances of their own experiences.
Just when Reyna feels like she might be getting her footing in these new surroundings, Olive chooses the night of Reyna's first date / kiss to disappear, later leading everyone to suspect she had the intention of ending her life. The few clues the reader gets to Olive's inner thoughts are from short IM (instant messaging) conversations she has with a mystery person on the other end (the other person's identity is revealed a few IM's in, I just don't want to throw in unnecessary spoilers here). These IM's appear just before the start of each chapter.
an excerpt from one of the IM messages... I couldn't help but have a dark laugh (given the heavy conversation) at the term "melodrama poisoning".. pretty sure I've been exposed to that a time or two!
The other major lesson Reyna learns from her time at Belltown is that EVERYONE, down to the most popular kid you know, has their own secrets they're trying to keep from surfacing. Working from that idea, Kocek does a nice job of illustrating a realistic high school experience, full of messy emotions that give the characters a sense of "humanness" about them.
There were no posters on the walls, no books or magazines on the bookshelves, no stuffed animals on the bed -- no trace of Olive whatsoever. There was only one book on her bedside table: Anna Karenina.
Olive walked over to the bedside table and picked up her book. "Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike ... and yet every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Doesn't that suck?"
"Life is lonely enough already!" Olive burst out. "You shouldn't have to worry about being the only freak in the world with your particular problems."
"You're not the only freak with your particular problems," I said to Olive. "Someone out there is going through it too. Trust me."
I liked the themes this novel addressed and the honesty of the characters. There were moments where I honestly felt a little pity for Reyna but there was also something to her overall personality that I found slightly off-putting... though I couldn't quite place my finger on what it was exactly. I was also surprised at how long it seemed to take me to work through this short book. Not sure if that was because of the subject matter, the emotional ride around the themes, or due to the slower points in the plot, but yeah, just in general I didn't find myself flying through this one. But I did enjoy the ride.
Taking all that into consideration, I struggled with what kind of rating I would personally give this book. I normally keep it simple, either full stars or half stars. This is the first time I honestly felt like this was right around a 3.25... little bit better than a 3, not quite a 3.5 for me. I know the rating system is completely arbitrary and based on the personal emotional experience of each reader, but there you have it. That's what I have to leave this one with ... a 3.25.