Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando

The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
Publisher: MTV Books
Publication Date: March 7, 2006
Source/Format: Owned paperback.
Page Count: 277.
Goodreads & Amazon

To put it simply, Betsy Ross Odell (yes, that's her actual name) is not having what she could call a good summer. Her mother has lost her battle with breast cancer, her father won't stop serving her and her little brother fast food, and her boyfriend of six months just broke up with her and everyone but her knew about it. The good news about all of this bad news is that suddenly her summer job at a colonial village, which she was convinced would be social suicide, is suddenly looking better. The village introduces her to James, the cute surfer and wood shop apprentice who is the only one in her life who knows anything about losing a parent, and Betsy strikes up an interesting relationship with Liza, the biggest 'freak' at school. Most importantly, Betsy is coming closer to the one thing her mother stressed importance on: her passion.

The casket gets lowered. The crowd disperses. Then it's back to the house where there are lasagnas and baked hams to be pushed around on the plate; the salad dressing's oily, a cancer poisoning everything around it. When I'm finally able to escape the concerned looks of relatives and neighbors and retreat to my room, I lie down on my bed and see my work clothes--my brown burlap skirt, white cotton shift, and brown striped top--hanging on the back of the door. To my complete astonishment, I can't wait to go back to Morrisville, to put on layer upon layer of farm-girl gear. 

I read this book once before in high school, but for some reason it was calling to me again from my book shelf. I'm still not sure why I was inspired to pick it up, but I am glad I did. One of my favorite things about The Pursuit of Happiness was the characters! I loved Betsy and she goes through a full transformation in this novel. She starts as a cynical teenage girl desperate for popularity and of course grieving over the death of her mother. She is witty and sometimes has little to no filter, even going so far as to laugh at her friend when she discovers her cat has died. By the end of the novel, she is on a hopeful road to her newfound passion in silhouette art and acceptance of her mother's death. 

And suddenly I'm so sick and tired of everyone wanting me to be something I'm not. My father wishes I were some brainy history buff. My mother wanted me to be passionate. Mary wants me to never change. Brandon wanted me to be somehow simpler. And now James wants me to stay a good two-shoes because that's all he thinks I am. With all these new feelings swirling inside me I feel like this new, indefinable person, like my spirit is somehow rising up in rebellion, starting a civil war of the heart. 

As for secondary characters, James is one of those YA boys that reminds you how dreamy and complicated YA boys can be. He's cute, sensitive, and of course loaded with frustrating baggage that makes you want to shake him and come to his senses, but then you'd feel guilty because his baggage is a result of that damned sensitivity. I also really loved Liza. She also really grows in this novel, and we learn a lot about her. She could stand as a symbol for not judging a book by it's cover. She's snarky and edgy and full of surprises that let you into the real Liza that is past all of the tattoos, piercings, and wild hair. 

Do you realize, the singer sings, that you have the most beautiful face... I remind myself not to take this too literally. James doesn't necessarily think of the song because it's my face that's the most beautiful. While reminding myself of this, I miss some lyrics so try to concentrate again. Do you realize that happiness makes you cry... which would be a corny line if the song weren't so goddamn beautiful, if I weren't with James in a car flying down a dark highway on a balmy summer night, feeling more alive that I've ever felt. And then the song says something about how we're all going to die someday and I feel strong, powerful, like I've glimpsed something sacred in life that most people have to wait longer to see., like maybe I'll be better for it, stronger, for having lost so much so young.

This book really brought all of the feels. There was a lot of drama without it feeling unrealistic or over the top, and it was a great look into teenaged relationships with their friends, family, and loved ones. I did think that sometimes Betsy's narration got away from her a little bit. At times it was like a little record skip when she said something that seemed out of character. I couldn't tell if that was Altebrando sticking her hand into the piece, or if it was a product of Betsy's being surrounded by colonial mannerisms at her summer job. Which, speaking of her summer job, I LOVED. I'm a bit of a history nerd at heart, so I loved seeing the colonial village, but also how a place so unique turns into Betsy's main source of escapism. 

The Pursuit of Happiness is full of emotion and heart and brought me close to tears several times. I enjoyed following Betsy through her steps of grief, and self-realization as she falls into new relationships and finds new passion in life. 

Rating: 4 / 5

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