Book Review: A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

Horner, Emily. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend. New York, NY: Dial Books, 2010.

For months, Cass Meyer has heard her best friend, Julia, whispering about a top-secret project. Then Julia is killed in a car accident, and her drama friends make it their mission to bring the project – a musical entitled Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad – to fruition.
But Cass isn’t a drama person. She can’t take a summer of painting sets, and she won’t spend long hours with Heather, the girl who rudely questioned Cass’s sexuality all through middle school and has somehow landed the leading role. So she takes off. In alternating chapters, Cass spends the first part of the summer on a cross-country bike trip and the rest swallowing her pride, making props, and – of all things – falling for Heather.
This novel is a tale about friendship. About love. About traveling a thousand miles just to find yourself. And it’s a story about the craziest high school musical one quiet suburb has ever seen.

I started off unsure about if I wanted to read about a girl getting over her best friend’s death. But I couldn’t resist reading about the making of a musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. It sounds like something my brother would have enjoyed, if it was a real play put on when he was in high school. And it is made clear early in the book that it’s a bunch of high school drama club members who are putting together the play by themselves, no teachers or adults involved – and even though it’s not being done in 13 days, the concept still has a lot in common with my recent love Doggirl by Robin Brande.

The story is told simultaneously of two times, “Now” and “Then.” At first it was a little confusing, as anything told with parallel stories is bound to be. But then something happened and it was not so crazy, like when Gwyneth Paltrow cuts and colors her hair in one storyline but not in the other in the movie Sliding Doors and it’s suddenly very easy to understand which scene goes with which storyline. (Maybe I’m the only one in the world, but that movie is one of my all-time favorites.) In this case, the something that happened was that Cass set out on her bicycle road trip “Then,” over the summer, and in the “Now” storyline school starts up again when summer ends.

I really like this book. After Julia’s death, Cass is a bit lost. She struggles with her friends, who really just let her hang out because they were Julia’s friends, but she feels like an outsider without Julia as a buffer. She can’t even read the script of the musical because it has inside jokes the two girls shared, and the memories hurt too much. Cass is suddenly confronted with mortality, which happens to everyone at some point in their lives. Death is something apart from life, something that it can seem will never happen to you (even though you know intellectually that it will). But when death touches you, when the person who died is someone you knew intimately, someone who was a big part of your life and now there’s a hole left behind, death becomes something inevitable. And that’s terrifying.

Cass and Julia had planned to drive out from Chicago to Santa Monica, California over the summer. Now that Julia is gone and Cass doesn’t drive, she decides it is something she must do alone now, on her bike. And after talking to her parents and Julia’s mother, she packs some food and clothes and Julia’s ashes, and sets out on the journey of over 2400 miles to find herself.

Later, back home, she is working on props and such for the play, forced to be civil with mean girl Heather. But Heather reveals a secret about why she was so mean to Cass in middle school, and why she left Catholic school after three years to do Senior Year with her old classmates, and things start to change between them. They begin a tentative friendship, which evolves into something that could be more if they are both willing.

Cass and Heather are fully-developed characters. Julia and Ollie and Jon are pretty round. But most of the other characters fall flat. Lissa and Amy (whose name I just had to look up because I didn’t even remember) are supposed to be core members of the group of friends, but they are no more than names on a page to me- hardly supporting characters. There are a few people Cass meets on the road, also not very dimensional. But at its core, this is a book about Cass, and she is a teenager, and her friend just died, and so it makes a lot of sense that the story, told from her point of view, is limited in this way. Although I would have preferred if at least some of the other characters got more fleshed out as the story went on and Cass started opening up to Heather and the rest of the world.

Overall, I would recommend this book to teens who can relate to Cass in her quest for identity and sexual orientation. On the road she kisses a boy, and later kisses a girl. She feels differently about these kisses, and the experiences help shape her and prepare her for a return to high school. On the road she acquires a new confidence that she doesn’t even see in herself until Heather points it out, and that night she looks in a mirror and sees herself in a new light.

Okay, so the real reason I read beyond the first few pages? I really like the following quote. It’s the way I feel about my 120 Books project*, and being far behind where I “should” be and trying to decide if I should keep going because it’s possible, or give it up because it’s not and I’m insane.

Seventy-nine days between today and the last day of August, when I’d better get on a bus back home before school starts. Divide it out, you get a little more than thirty miles a day, and there’s something reassuring about the calculations. Like how we always did it when one of us was freaking out that we would never have time to write that fifteen-page paper, or never be able to save up enough for decent seats at the theater. It makes it look possible. It makes me forget that I can’t do this and I don’t expect to. (page 2)

Calculations are reassuring. If I say I have to read a book every 2.7 days it somehow seems less possible than if I say I have to read three books a week. And both are more crazy than saying I have read 20 books when I should have read over 40 by now. One day at a time, one book at a time, and I can do it. Just like Cass figures out every night how many miles a day she has to average to get to California in the time she has available before school starts. There are a lot of points in the book where she talks about pushing through, little by little, and how you can accomplish anything like this. Like I do in November during NaNoWriMo. Like the E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s one of those lessons I need to re-learn over and over again, and I think it’s perfect as a theme for this book.

And have I mentioned the ending? The last 50 pages, wow. First the “Then” storyline has a big climax, then the “Now” storyline has a big climax, then the “Then” storyline ties up, then the “Now” storyline ties up… Talk about a roller coaster, this ending is awesome! I can’t say more without ruining it, but… wow!

*I read this book during the year I set the lofty goal of reading 120 books… I ended up falling short, but that’s okay.

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