by Kristen Tracy
March 2014, Simon Pulse
“Once upon a time, last semester, I took a course called International Foods. I did this because I liked the idea of eating at school, and also learning in a room that had ovens. They were electric ovens, so that was a tad disappointing. I like flames. Anyway, while taking this course, I fell madly in love with a girl named Valley. Valley didn’t seem to notice me too much. But I sure noticed Valley. She had long dark hair and she sat in front of me. Each class, I had an urge to reach out and touch her hair. When she leaned forward, her hair rose up her back. And when she sat up straight, it draped longer down her chair. It was like watching a water line climb and fall. I learned a lot that semester.”
Lucy and James are both high schoolers who live in Vermont. They don’t know each other, though, as they go to different schools. The teenagers speak to one another on the phone after Lucy leaves several voicemails for James, thinking he is a salesman who sold her a plaque. Unfortunately for her, James has purchased a recycled phone that used to belong to a scamming salesman, one who has left several unhappy customers in James’s lap. James feels bad that Lucy got screwed out of her money, and they begin a connection based on the fact that they both have midterms at school.
The story of Lucy and James is speedy. The entire thing is written in dialogue over the phone with a few text messages thrown in. Because the book is all dialogue, Kristen Tracy had to know what an enormous task she’d given herself. Many famous authors completely skip dialogue in their novels, for it is a notoriously difficult aspect of fiction writing. However, I grew to like Lucy and James because they said things to one another that were natural and realistic, things that I might have said to my friends over a decade ago. Tracy beautifully avoids the overly the cheesy things — no, flat out garbage — that authors have teenagers say, making both the book and the age group represented therein seem like the important and interesting part of the population that they are. James and Lucy often call each other for help brainstorming on essay subjects or to talk about how school was. The exchange regarding a diorama shows off James’s snarky attitude, but also a caring sensitivity:
“James: I want to hear about your diorama. No joking around. I promise.
Lucy: Okay. Mine wasn’t elaborate like CeCe’s.
James: Sounds like hers had structural issues anyway.
Lucy: You said no joking around.
James: I meant about your diorama.
Lucy: Well, I figured you meant all dioramas.
James: Sheesh. I had no idea you had such serious hang-ups regarding craft projects.”
Here, James isn’t above teasing this girl he hasn’t met, one whom he likes, because he’s not willing to change his personality. On the other hand, he does care about Lucy’s life. When Lucy and James have a fight and do not talk, Lucy decides to leave voice messages instead, assuming that James cares enough to listen to them, but has the pride to not answer her immediately. In her message, Lucy’s mind wanders (though the point is that her family is visiting a candidate for her college education), like most of ours do, making her more human:
“Lucy: Hi, James, today is Armed Forces Day. I know this because it says so on my calendar. But I don’t know any traditions associated with Armed Forces Day. Do you? Okay, I’ll be away tomorrow. My parents are I are leaving for Maine this afternoon. We’re taking a tour of Bowdoin. I think that’s where they want me to go. Because it’s small. And my parents equate small with safe. Which is stupid, because sometimes bombs are small. And poison capsules. And deadly bacteria. And scorpions. Anyway, I worry that I’m not going to like it there. They keep using the words ‘cozy,’ ‘nourishing,’ and ‘comfortable.’ It sort of sounds like they’re describing how I feel about waffles.”
I really liked the way Lucy’s and James’s thoughts weren’t “cleaned up” to seem cooler, or like they fit into a stereotype, or extra dorky-but-lovable. Both characters had real questions and issues that shaped them, and through the phone they developed a safe space — something not all teens have but need — to communicate.
I was uncertain as to why the characters didn’t text one another. Lucy doesn’t want to, but because James immediately respects her request that they not text (or Lucy’s insistence that she won’t reply), the reasons behind Lucy’s refusal were a bit lost on me. Especially confusing is the cover of the book, which is covered in emoticons (which are only sent through text messages). Of course, authors oftentimes have very little say about the cover art and are at the mercy of a designer who hasn’t read the book, so I tried not to think about it.
The other part of the cover that is misleading is the picture of the two teenagers. Both are sexy, and I doubt either model is actually teen aged. This is problematic because Lucy and James don’t describe what they look like to one another. Since visual media rules (or screws it up by photoshopping models to pieces), I was impressed with and amazed by Kristen Tracy’s choice to leave out looks. James wants to know what Lucy looks like and requests she send a picture, but she refuses on the grounds that he could choose to stop communicating with her based on her looks. After the deep connection formed on the phone, it won’t matter what Lucy or James look like because the feelings come first. The book appears to be marketed as a sexy phone romance, which is a real shame because the author has worked much more conscientiously than that.
I want to thank Kristen Tracy for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.