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Sarah Dessen's novel Along for the Ride follows Auden West through the summer before she begins college. Auden has agreed to spend the summer at her father's beachfront home in the tiny town of Colby. Auden is hesitant at first because the extended visit means sharing a living space with her father's young wife, Heidi and the couple's newborn daughter, Thisbe. Auden's parents divorced several years ago and she is still smarting from it. Victoria West, Auden's mother, is a beautiful, successful woman with a sharp tongue and an intellect to match. Her father, Robert West, is a rather nondescript man who is unable to set aside his own needs to help his wife care for a newborn. Auden's younger brother Hollis is her complete opposite. Hollis is something of a charming slacker and the apple of Victoria's eye. When the novel opens, Hollis is backpacking across Europe, mooching money from his mother from thousands of miles away. Meanwhile, Auden gives in to her insomnia. Neither of her parents seem to notice that their daughter sleeps through the day and spends her nights reading and studying in local all-night coffee shops. Auden considers herself to be unusual until she meets someone with the same problem.
Auden is educated at a private school and highly motivated to achieve. She admits to being smarter than the average 18=year-old but her trip to Colby opens the character's eyes about who she has become. Auden does not have much experience socializing with other young people. This is a direct result of Auden's obsession with grades and school and her innate awkwardness. Through a series of experiential hiccups, Auden comes face to face with her fears and failings. First, she has an uncomfortable encounter with someone else's boyfriend shortly after arriving in Colby. Then, when she gets a glimpse of what her father's new life is really like, Auden is more than happy to take a job at a small boutique. Her father's wife, Heidi, happens to be the owner of Clementine's. Her small victory is short-lived, however, when Auden finds out that she is working with the young man's girlfriend. Things eventually turn around for Auden. She subsequently wins the day and the night.
Auden's summer in Colby is spent working in the boutique and learning about life and its inconsistencies. Auden narrates her own story of self-discovery and resolution of things past. Life can be complicated no matter what age you are. The characters in Along for the Ride represent distinct stages of life and ways of being. Auden navigates friendships and family as best she can. By the end of her summer in Colby, Auden learns that sometimes being totally in control is not necessarily a good way to be.
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A photo in a frame catapults Auden off on a tangent the summer before college starts. Auden has always been the good daughter with the great grades, holding it together when her parents split up at the beginning of her sophomore year --- except for the fact that she never sleeps at night anymore. Now, though, she gazes at the gift sent by Hollis, her reckless brother. The photo shows Hollis standing before the Taj Mahal, and the frame reads "The Best of Times."
Auden believes it's a lame present, yet she can't quite get it out of her mind. Where, she wonders, are her "best of times"? Surely they are not with her distant, busy mother. And so Auden, on a whim, accepts her young stepmother's invitation to visit. After all, her father and Heidi have recently had a baby girl. It makes for a good excuse to meet her half sister, Thisbe (a name borrowed from Shakespeare at her father's insistence), even though the thought of spending much time with young and bubbly Heidi makes Auden shudder.
At her father's beach house, Auden finds Heidi exhausted by the constant demands of a fussy newborn while her possibly oblivious but definitely selfish father hides away in his study, writing a novel. Little Thisbe's constant crying propels insomniac Auden out into the night of the tiny beach town, where she meanders into a teen gathering spot on the nearby beach. A charismatic guy named Jake chats her up. Auden is the first to admit she is socially stunted and has had no experience with boys (unless you count being stood up for prom "experience"). Before she realizes quite what she's doing, she's making out with Jake in the dunes…and then she comes to her senses.
Mortified, Auden rushes home where she insists poor Heidi take a break. Holding her tiny sister fills Auden with a surprising and tender awe. Yet Thisbe cries on. Desperate, Auden takes the baby for a 5AM stroll into downtown. The only person she encounters is a mysterious guy she had noticed at the beach earlier. They exchange a few brief words, but Auden is struck by an almost haunted quality in the young man.
Later, when Auden runs an errand to Heidi's clothing boutique, Clementine's, she overhears a girl break the news to the salesclerk: Some strange girl hooked up with Jake the night before. At the exclamations, Auden is humiliated, realizing that Jake is the salesclerk's boyfriend. Her efforts to hide behind a display of swimming suits while mentally kicking herself comes to naught when Molly, the now hysterical and heartbroken salesclerk, confronts her. How on earth can Auden stay here in Colby now that she has acted like such a loser? And yet, she does.
Colby is a laid-back village. Auden is pulled unwittingly into the dynamic between her father and his new wife, which painfully echoes the past interactions between her father and her mother. She also begins working at Clementine’s, where she is slowly pulled into the lives of others despite her acclaimed position of eternal outsider.
Auden still can’t sleep at night, so she roams Colby during the wee hours. Eventually, she connects with another damaged soul who announces he will help her on her quest. Auden is rather surprised to hear that she even has a quest, but when her companion explains she is seeking the pieces of the childhood she never had, it makes sense. Together, they embark on middle-of-the night pie-eating, bowling, talking, shopping, food fights, and much more, in a summer that will transform Auden's life forever.
ALONG FOR THE RIDE is a thought-provoking and intelligent story about all kinds of relationships and love. It feels as if Auden is sharing confidences as she (quite the original character herself) discovers that people are not easily pigeon-holed and have the capacity to change. Sarah Dessen's many fans are sure to fall upon this page-turner in ecstasy, and new readers will become instant devotees, searching out this master storyteller's previous excellent novels.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on June 16, 2009
Along for the Ride
by Sarah Dessen
- Publication Date: April 5, 2011
- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Speak
- ISBN-10: 0142415561
- ISBN-13: 9780142415566