There are literally thousands of Young Adult novels about first kisses, college decisions and fighting with your mother. What makes Rachel Toor's new YA novel any different? The book touches on many of the predictable themes and formulas found in the sea of teen fiction, but it also contains some distinctive subject matter and an uncommon approach that makes it surprising and fun. Or, to put it a better way: By the end of the book, no matter your age, you will most likely want to strap on some running shoes and purchase a rat.
Yes, I said "rat."
On the Road to Find Out follows high school senior Alice Davis as she navigates a small world that includes her best friend Jenni, her successful parents, her family's oddball friend Walter and her pet rat (also named Walter; not a coincidence). She's just suffered her first real rejection in life (an application denial from Yale) and she's just started a new hobby (running). She's never dated, she's never participated in extracurricular activities and she's never really thought about what she wants out of life. She's also the valedictorian of her class and a self-described cookie-cutter of a student. What will her life after high school hold?
It seems like a pat plot summary on the surface, but the true life of the book centers on Alice's relationship with her rat as well as her blooming relationship with running. Toor, who has written about her own odd parade of pets and her running career in two of her adult nonfiction books, Personal Record and The Pig and I, is at her best when exploring Alice's (and Toor's) passions. While our hearts expect to jump when Alice gets up the courage to talk to her crush or when she finally connects with her mom, the most sincere and genuine emotional scenes of the book take the reader completely by surprise: Alice watching Walter (the rat) eat a piece of macaroni. Alice running all the way to the bridge on the edge of town and beyond for the first time. Alice realizing, through running, that failure is a necessary component of living a daring, happy and full life.
The other great surprise of On the Road to Find Out is Toor's ability to harness the power of the first person unreliable narrator in a way that is initially funny and ultimately touching—and in a way that is accessible to teens. Throughout Part One of the book, we can gladly accept Alice at her word—that she is smart and quirky, that she is misunderstood by others, that her best friend is always at her side. It isn't until an event halfway through the book—her mother's birthday party—that we discover just how unaware and self-absorbed she is. It's a shock for everyone, including Alice. As it turns out, she has been ignoring the people who love her most, brooding over her Yale denial in an unhealthy way and never paying attention to anyone's feelings but her own.
Alice is, in many ways, an exaggerated version of most teens. She is comically lacking in self-awareness and stubbornly refusing help, advice or even the simple truth. By having her misrepresent her life at the beginning of the book—and taking her audience along for the ride—Toor has found an ingenious way to help young readers come to the same realizations.
As you might guess from the title, On the Road to Find Out is about appreciating the journey over the achievement. It's also about learning to take the good with the bad and understanding that trying is more important than either victory or defeat. In other words, it's about running. And it's about your first really awesome pet. And, yeah, it's also about your first kiss.
Adults probably don't need to be inspired to, say, touch their crush on the shoulder or consider the full spectrum of post-high school options. But the book's running passages are enjoyable for those of us past our teen angst years. They're even inspiring. Montana residents might also enjoy the handful of nods to Missoula (Toor is a 2006 graduate of the University of Montana's creative nonfiction writing program and currently teaches writing at Eastern Washington University). Here's one for starters: Alice gets a job working at a running store called Runner's Edge.
YA literature often gets a bad rap—sometimes for good reason—for being about teens in love with other teens. (See also wizard teens in love with other wizard teens, teens in love with teen vampires, etc.) On the Road to Find Out does include a bit of the expected teen romance, but it's worth the read for the other types of new love it explores: loving a pet, loving a sport and sure, I'll say it, loving yourself.
Rachel Toor reads from On the Road to Find Out at Shakespeare & Co. Wed., June 18, at 7 PM.