(Note: This review contains some spoilers.)
Thirteen-year-old Gracie is facing pressure from all sides. At home, she feels compelled to be her parents’ little ray of sunshine, trying somehow to make up for the absence of her older sister, who died in a car accident before Gracie was born. Meanwhile, at school, Gracie is caught in an awkward triangle when A.J., the guy she has a crush on, reveals that he has a crush on Sienna, her best friend.
Trying to be the perfect daughter, the perfect friend, and just plain perfect in general can take its toll. But when Gracie begins to find her burdens too great to bear, she discovers that more help, support, and sympathy are available to her than she ever realized.
This subject matter may make Rachel Vail’s “Well, That Was Awkward” sound like a downer, but it’s actually not. Vail successfully captures the breathless voice and frenetic pacing of interactions among young teens. If this sometimes leads to confusion as Gracie introduces us to half a dozen of her friends at once, or as those friends chatter and text at breakneck speed, it nevertheless also gives the story a lively tone that keeps it from getting overly melancholy.
The story takes a “Cyrano de Bergerac“-like twist as Gracie ends up texting A.J. for Sienna, who can never seem to think of what to say to him. (Fans of that classic play will enjoy the “Cyrano” references sprinkled throughout the story.) The girls’ friendship is a close and supportive one, but as this subplot reveals, Gracie is too prone to jump in and speak on Sienna’s behalf, and Sienna is too prone to let her do it. Both of them have to learn that genuine friendship requires honesty, respect, and space to let each person be responsible for herself.
The positive side of Gracie and Sienna’s friendship is that they encourage one another to be strong and not to put themselves down. As the story highlights, even in an era that ostensibly celebrates women’s empowerment, there are still forces at work sucking the self-esteem right out of teenage girls, and Gracie in particular is inclined to take them seriously. It’s good to watch these characters make an active effort to resist the urge to denigrate themselves, even though they don’t always succeed.
In general, most of the kids in their class are kindhearted and likable — particularly Emmett, whose massive crush on Gracie is glaringly obvious to everyone but Gracie. (Adult readers especially may feel tempted to shake her and yell “Open your eyes!”) They have a wide variety of interests and gifts — Emmett is even in the Children’s Chorus at the Metropolitan Opera — and work to raise money for causes they care about. And though many of them are nursing crushes and a few are openly dating, the romance is kept strictly chaste for the middle-school audience, with nothing ever going further than a kiss.
That said, the kids here are all children of their age, prone to dropping expressions like “gendered” and “OMFG” and engaging in what sometimes comes across as politically correct groupthink. Most of this is in passing, and there’s not much overtly political or ideological here — aside from Gracie’s observation that her parents don’t believe in God, but try to be ethical people. (Her father does admit to praying after his older daughter’s death, to find new purpose and meaning in life, even though he still doesn’t consider himself a believer.)
The one unquestionable villain of the piece is Riley, a pretty and popular girl who gets her kicks from putting other kids down. Gracie tries to stand up for one of her victims, but Riley continues her bratty ways largely unopposed until nearly the end of the story, when Sienna finally, firmly puts her in her place. Some parents might find Sienna’s words (“We just don’t like you”) a bit harsh, but on the other hand, she does offer a pretty good example of finding a way to stand up to a bully using only words, not fists.
Aside from occasional profanity and the kind of groupthink I’ve mentioned, “Well, That Was Awkward” is a sweet, touching, often funny story that emphasizes the power of family and friendship to help kids through life’s hard times — and just to make everything better in general.
Image copyright Viking Books for Young Readers. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.