Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Book Review: Are We There Yet?

By Jami Denison

There’s a meme that’s been popular for over a decade among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, a photo of a teenager doing something stupid with the phrase, “Why I’m glad there was no social media when I was a kid.” Yes, we did a lot of the same stupid stuff today’s teens and tweens are doing now, but without cell phones, cameras on those phones, and the internet, most of those moments are preserved only in our memories. But for the Gen Xers who have children posting this stuff, the relief is definitely short-lived. Understanding the actions of pubescent kids is hard enough. But when your kids get in trouble doing things that were literally not possible in the 1980s, how do we know the best way to help them?

Despite its humorous title, Are We There Yet, author Kathleen West’s follow-up to her debut Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes is an earnest thoughtful look at parenting a middle-schooler and being one in today’s social media jungle. Told from the third person points-of-view of mothers and children, West does the impossible: She makes a middle-aged mom understand a 12-year-old boy.

Interior designer Alice Sullivan is overwhelmed with work and parenting her two children solo during the week while her husband works out of town. On the same day she learns her second-grade daughter isn’t reading at grade level, she’s called into the junior high to deal with her son’s bullying. It seems that Teddy pulled down the pants of a soccer teammate in front of the entire school. And everyone knows about the “Teddy vs. Tate” rivalry but her. 

What would cause a previously good-natured boy to turn into a sarcastic bully? West gives us Teddy’s point-of-view – Tate threatens Teddy’s status on the soccer team, and he likes the same girl Teddy does – and suddenly Teddy’s actions are understandable. The impulsiveness, the bewilderment, the emotional roller coaster of adolescence are behind every action, and even in third-person, West creates a fully dimensional character. 

As Alice struggles to deal with Teddy, her friends begin to judge her, blaming her parenting for Teddy’s acting out. And her mother Evelyn, coincidentally a psychologist, tries to help, but she’s pre-occupied with her own life-changing events. 

West tells the story through five points-of-view: Alice’s, Teddy’s, Evelyn’s, Sadie’s (the 13-year-old girl caught between Teddy and Tate), and Meredith’s, Sadie’s mother. Meredith is the woman who judges Alice the most—she’s a helicopter mom with only one child, and believes that Sadie’s good grades and behavior are a direct result of her parenting. 

Most “mom lit” books deal with younger children and babies, while high school is usually cited as the hardest time for a teen. Middle school is almost ignored, even though those are the years that are the most trying. Are We There Yet? brings it all back, both the pain of being a 12-year-old whose friends have all suddenly moved on to something different, as well as the fear that parents have when their children first begin to struggle. The book’s pacing is as breathless as a thriller’s; I couldn’t put it down.

My only quibble is with the subplot about Alice’s mother Evelyn. It’s a soap-opera like detour that, while well integrated into the main plot, doesn’t seem to fit with the book’s themes. Evelyn was the only character I had trouble relating to; although she was helpful to Alice, she came across as self-absorbed in a way that I found surprising for a psychologist. 

While Are We There Yet? is not a sequel to Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, it takes place in the same town and deals with the same themes. As a former middle and high school teacher, West has strong fingers on the pulse of this milieu. She understands educators, parents, and students in a way I haven’t seen in other books in this genre. While I’m grateful that these days are behind me both as a parent and a student, I’ll keep an eye out for all of West’s offerings.  

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review. 

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