Saturday, October 17, 2015

What we're reading: Realistic fiction / romance

I finally read Emmy and Oliver, by Robin Benway. I thought I was reading it about six weeks ago, but I had actually picked up Althea and Oliver, by Cristina Moracho, which I reviewed here. While the two books have certain surface similarities--both are about childhood friends, both take place in the past (the '80s for one and the '90s for the other), and both have one protagonist named Oliver--the Moracho book is definitely edgy fiction, while I would characterize Benway's as more mainstream romance-with-an-issue fare.

The basic story is this: Emmy and Oliver are childhood friends. Then, at age six, after his parents have divorced and are doing the usual thing of the kid living with the mom and seeing the dad on weekends, Oliver's dad picks him up for a three-day weekend and never brings him back. Instead, he disappears with Oliver, and all the efforts of Oliver's mother, the police, and the FBI are unable to locate him. This is all in the past, though. When the story opens, it's 10 years later, Emmy is 16 and still living next door to Oliver's mother, who has remarried and had twin girls, and then one day, Oliver returns. He was doing a class project that required the students to be fingerprinted, and when he was, the fingerprint popped up in the missing children database, and the police and Oliver's mom retrieved him and brought him home.

Now Oliver has to adjust to being with his mom instead of his dad (who is on the lam to avoid arrest), and try to fit back into his old life, with his old friends (who are happy to see him but don't know how to treat him), and to reconnect with Emmy, his best friend from birth to six years old.

Emmy has had her own issues since Oliver disappeared, the most obvious one that it made her parents (also best friends with Oliver's mom) absolutely paranoid about letting her out of their sight. This wasn't so bad when she was 10, but now that she's 16, she is chafing under the curfews, the prohibitions, and the constant surveillance. So she welcomes Oliver back and takes particular enjoyment in (mildly) breaking some rules. As you probably figured, at some point romance ensues. And in fact, whoever designed the cover chose to focus only on the romance, when really, the heart of the novel, based on its description, was the miraculous return of Oliver to his family.

So: The romance was sweet, and everybody in this book was so likable that it's hard to dislike the story; but much of it seemed a little superficial to me. I would have liked to have been in on some more of the inner thoughts of the characters earlier on. The parts I liked best were the few dark moments, including when Oliver reveals to Emmy that coming home to his mother after 10 years of living with his father felt like he was being kidnapped all over again. It put everything in perspective for the characters and for the reader, to realize that although his father did a bad thing taking Oliver away, once they were away, they had a fairly normal life together, and it's a relationship that Oliver will naturally miss, now that he's been uprooted yet again and plunked back down in his old life. There's also a moving scene when Oliver (finally) expresses his bitterness that his mother was supposedly all broken up about losing him but somehow had the time and attention to get remarried and have two more kids. I would have loved more details like these, and more confrontation over those events.

I am a bit puzzled that Benway didn't choose to let Oliver narrate part of this story, since the story revolves around him--his disappearance, his return--and shows the consequences on a family and on a community of having one of their own disappear. For instance, Emmy's overprotective parents who don't see her and won't let her have a life of her own. I liked that she managed to take something for herself anyway, but all the waffling regarding her secret plans was slightly manufactured drama that took too long to resolve.

I was pleased that Benway included a gay character--and one who was completely comfortable with himself--but I kind of agreed with Emmy's friends, Caro and Drew, when they started feeling neglected by Emmy while she focused on Oliver, because I felt more could have been made of their characters by Benway to make the story even stronger! Maybe she will do a sequel about Drew and Kevin and Caro?

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book. Lovers of the books of Stephanie Perkins or Abby McDonald will like this, too. Take note!

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