Take the disappearance of a not-so-close friend.
Add a promise not to tell, some calls from the cops and FBI, and a spontaneous road trip with your best friend/crush.
Mix in some tourist attractions, metaphors, and close-to-the-heart confessions along the way.
The result? Don't Stop Now by Julie Halpern.
Don't Stop Now is all about the characters and their relationships. Often if characters frustrate me a little but I keep on reading, that's a good sign that there's some great characterization going on there, and that's what I found with this novel. The main characters are given enough flaws that they seem like real people, but not so reprehensible that you give up because you just can't stand them.
Lillian: she isn't the most likeable protagonist right off the bat, but Lillian grows on you. She's got a strong sense of herself, her opinions and her wants — no weak, wishy-washy protagonist here — but she has to learn to see things from others' perspectives as well. Her friendship, if you can call it that, with Penny is key in this area, because at the beginning of the novel she doesn't really care very much about Penny. The stabs of conscience she feels over the knowledge that perhaps she might have been able to prevent Penny's disappearance annoy Lillian more than anything else, and she uses Penny's faked kidnapping as an excuse to spend time with Josh on a roadtrip. Concern about whether Penny is actually safe? Not so much.
And while Lillian sometimes gets annoyed with Josh's immaturity, she's not exactly a model of responsibility and common sense herself. She talks to Penny more than once without managing to get an address for her; while I understand that there probably wouldn't have been a story if Lillian had been a little savvier or rule-obeying, it didn't reflect particularly well on her. Eventually, towards the end of the novel, Lillian does seem to come to some realizations about how she's been acting and what she should do to help Penny. Spoilers, highlight to read: she basically admits to herself that a) the reason she's on this roadtrip is not really to find Penny, but to move her relationship with Josh in a different direction, b) that Penny's parents and friends deserve to know that she's okay, and c) that she can encourage Penny to do the right thing, rather than covering for her or turning her in (both of which put events into Lillian's control).
Josh: so while I didn't always agree with Lillian's decisions and actions (lying to the cops and FBI is not really my thing) I did appreciate her as a character who felt 3-D and real. Likewise, Josh sometimes irritated me as well, but he too was a mix of good and bad. I didn't blame Lillian one bit for calling him out on his immaturity when it came to the future and his career plans (or lack thereof — a band? Really?) or his mixed signals when it came to their relationship. His carefree, blase attitude towards life in general, taking for granted that everything will work out just fine, made me want to shake some sense into him. However, we can see that he's been a close, loyal friend to Lillian and that they have a strong bond and shared memories.
Lillian & Josh: Halpern was able to create a pair of characters where I wasn't sure if I was rooting for them to get together romantically or stay friends. Honestly, this is a bit of a rare occurrence; usually I'm either cheering for the guy and girl to admit they're in love, or I'm going, "no, they're all wrong for each other." Well, with these two I kept hemming and hawing, seeing both sides of it and not knowing which side I should land on. It was clear that they had a long history of being friends, and that they both relied on each other in different ways, but I also got the sense that they didn't have as much in common now as they used to. So I was caught between "Awww, they obviously care about each other, there could definitely be something there," and "They are good friends, but if they're going down such different paths, I don't see much of a future there romantically." The only thing I knew for sure was that I thought they should give it a try. No spoiling, but because of this see-sawing I was experiencing, I thought the way the book ended was very fitting.
Penny: while her narrative is sympathy-inducing, I felt like we only see one side of her — the girl caught in an unhealthy relationship — which made her character seem a bit stereotyped. The excerpts from her point of view helped to give us a sense of where she was coming from, but I would have liked to see other facets of her character. I think there was a completely separate story happening with Penny, that we are just given glimpses of; it comes across quite obviously that this book is Josh and Lillian's tale, not Penny's.
From the description the book comes across like a bit of a mystery, but that's really not the case. The focus of the story is not on Lillian and Josh finding out where Penny is and what happened, but on their experiences on the road and their relationship dynamics. The pace is slow and easy for a journey that's supposed to be all about tracking down a missing person, which is reflective not only of Lillian and her "friendship" with Penny, but also of Josh's laid-back devil-may-care personality. Frankly, they're mostly on this roadtrip to enjoy themselves, even if they may pretend it's for more altruistic reasons. I did often wish that Lillian cared more and realized the urgency and potential danger in Penny's situation, but I understand that this reflected her character and how she operated. Although I've gotta say, if I was in danger or need of help, I wouldn't be counting on Lillian or Josh to come to the rescue.
That said, I appreciated that the Penny disappearance sub-plot did keep the story moving and give it direction. I thought the ending was a bit rushed, everything wrapping up easily and conveniently with both Lillian and Penny coming (at least somewhat) to their senses. Spoiler: the discovery of Penny was quite coincidental (what are the odds that girl at the skateboard park would have seen her? What are the chances that they would bump into her at the tribute to Elvis building? Slim indeed.) Unfortunately we don't get to see the aftermath of Penny's storyline unfold, although we are given an idea of what might happen.
Since it's a roadtrip novel, the setting really adds to the storyline. Though their stops at each place are pretty brief, and I thought they could have used some more description, having the various tourist attractions sprinkled along the way was fun. Unique places like the House on the Rock, Mars' Cheese Castle, and the Corn Palace keep the story feeling fresh.
I did think, though, that a map might have been nice, so I could picture their journey (being Canadian, my knowledge of U.S. geography is slight indeed.)
I thought the use of excerpts from Penny's perspective at the end of each chapter was marvelously done, giving the reader an idea of how she got to where she is now without getting bogged down in any long flashbacks that would take away from the current storyline. Penny's darker story also makes for a nice counterpoint to the more upbeat vibe of the roadtrip.
For the most part the writing is smooth and flows well, and despite the relaxed pacing I don't recall that it took me very long to read. I did find some of the slang to be a bit confusing — I'm not sure if I'm just not familiar with it or if it's slang invented by the characters, but it made me go, "Do teens really talk like this?" a few times.
Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. As you can see from how much I discussed them above, the characters are the lynchpin of this novel. If you're expecting an action-packed thriller, this isn't the book you're looking for. But if you'd like to take a gentle ride with a couple teens on a roadtrip where they learn a few things about themselves and others, then pick up this book, read the first page, and...
...well, don't stop now!
Disclaimer: I received the ARC of Don't Stop Now from the publisher for review.