So I told you guys that an incredibly generous sales rep at Penguin Random House sent me a bunch of ARCs of juvenile and teen lit to use in conjunction with the book clubs I’m starting. To help their promotion I’ll be reviewing the titles here, and so far it looks like it’ll be pretty easy because Don’t Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche, was REALLY good.
It’s told in the first person present tense POV of Michelle Devereaux, a seventeen-year-old high school student with a mom that just got put in jail again (for drug use), two younger siblings she’s pretty much solely responsible for looking out for, and a dead-beat dad who left their family ten years ago. Michelle is a champion: she single-handedly protects Denny and Cass, her siblings, keeps them fed, safe, and in school, and does so while keeping up her own grades so that she can get somewhere better. Her mother is a druggie, in and out of prison, and the only other family they have is their Aunt Sam who tries to extort rent from Michelle to keep the kids out of the foster system.
The story really begins when a boy named Tim finds Michelle at work, tells her that his step-sister Leah is her half-sister (the half-sister their father left Michelle’s mom for, before leaving Leah as well) and that Buck (their father) reached out to them because he’s dying and has a family heirloom for the girls. Michelle sees this as the potential “Hail Mary” they need for some extra cash, and immediately launches a family road trip (Leah and Tim in tow) to find Buck in his hospice in California. What follows is a road trip fraught with tension: ducking Child Protective Services and the cops, foraging for supplies, tension between our protagonists, and ultimately, the forging of a new kind of family that defies definition but is stronger than what could be called “normal.”
LaMarche’s story is rough and full of heartache, and it should be. It was pretty much the ultimate in “check your privilege” literature; every time I caught myself thinking that the struggles Michelle and her siblings faced were exaggerated or unrealistic, I had to pause and remember that people do deal with these kind of issues. LaMarche creates a harsh and starkly realistic world for these children, but cushions it with an ultimately hopeful ending for the Devereaux family – an ending I needed after all the heartache I went through with these kids.
If it has a weakness it is that the ending wraps up a little TOO neatly – I felt like there were emotional jumps that happen way too quickly, and certain emotional plots get tied up too perfectly given the timeline of the novel. However, as I said, after the struggles the characters go through during the novel, I find it hard to begrudge them their tentatively happy ending.
This is a great book to discuss themes like family, race, racial privilege, classism, bullying…there’s a lot to mine here (I’m discussing it with a teen book club in a few weeks so I read it with potential discussion in mind). It’s also a great way to talk to teens about what they see in their own futures. I definitely recommend it.