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Don’t Stop Now

By Julie Halpern

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Mainly girls, aged 16 and Up for tastefully handled teen sexuality and frank sexual discussions. The story is narrated by a girl and contains a love story, but she leans towards tomboyishness and the romance is neither gushy nor sentimental, so male readers shouldn’t be excluded from this one.

One Word Summary: Naturalistic.

At last, a love story with its feet on the ground. In fact, to even call this sharp, nuanced coming of age tale a “Love Story” is to diminish it and burden it with ill-fitting connotations. Yes there is a romantic relationship at the heart of Don’t Stop Now, but Julie Halpern’s road trip veers readers away from all the tedious, sappy confectionary of traditional teen romance and drives us to a destination rich with realism, poignancy and offbeat charm.

It’s the summer after senior year, and Lillian is looking forward to enjoying her last moments of lazy freedom. College looms in the fall and with it all the inherent upheavals and painful goodbyes, but for now, Lil’s more than content to shove those thoughts out of her mind and wile away the hours with her best friend, partner-in-chill and long time love object, Josh. While Lil aspires to a career in film or creative writing (God help her) Josh’s main aspirations are mainly to float. He talks the talk about starting up a band

and living the rock star lifestyle, but when it comes to walking the walk he’s more likely to lie down and take a nap. To Josh, college is for sell-outs and his absentee father’s limitless credit card allows him a life of shirtless summer leisure. (Isn’t every guy named Josh that you’ve ever met exactly like that?) All this is well and good for Lil who has wandered a curious borderline between friend and something more with the good-looking slacker for years. There’s a lot of hugging and hand holding, but Josh saves the R-rated stuff for his endless stream of bimbo girlfriends.

Lil’s plans for indolent summer bliss are tossed to the wind however with a four A.M. voicemail from a girl she hardly even considered a friend. “I did it,” Penny mutters on the message and then is gone. We learn that Penny is one of those girls always on the fringe of Lil’s life. Pallid and moody, she falls somewhere between Goth and Emo, talking non-stop about her miserable relationship with her abusive on-again-off again jerk of a boyfriend. At some point in the past Lil encountered Penny at a party and took pity on the girl’s awkwardness

by throwing her a few lines of conversation. That one kindness was a lot for Penny, who sort of attached herself to Lil ever after. Shortly after receiving the ambiguous voicemail it’s discovered that Penny had gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Only Lil knows the secret: that Penny had been plotting her own disappearance for months to escape her bizarre family and lousy boyfriend and flee to Portland, Oregon. When the police start calling Lil for answers, she and Josh make it their mission to drive from their home in Illinois to Oregon to try to find Penny and talk some sense into her. But that’s not all that Lil is hoping for from this road trip. It’s a step away from all the distraction, and a moment, in the eleventh hour of their relationship, for Josh and Lil to determine what that relationship really is. Cheesy tourist traps abound (some literally cheese related) but it’s the twists, turns and ambiguity of their feelings that provide all the potholes.

In the midst of this book I found that I really wasn’t rooting for Lil and Josh to get together and wondered if this was a failing on the author’s part to convince me of the passion in this relationship. I saw Josh as the slacker that he is, guessing that his charms would eventually lose their hold on Lil and she would be left with a worn out relationship with a nice guy who just can’t relate to her ambitions. But as I read on I realized Halpern was attempting, and achieving, something far more subtle than the white-knuckled grip of an enthralling romance. With this fraying relationship she illustrates that critical turning point in ones late teen years, the moment when all of your childhood connections are put to the stress test. Can they carry on into adulthood? Or is this relationship doomed to the past?

More interesting than the romantic moments, for me at least, were the moment when you see Lil growing tired of Josh’s sameness, his non-committal evasiveness, the moments where the jokes just aren’t that funny anymore. It’s incredibly uncommon in teen romance to find this kind of doubt in a female protagonist. How refreshing to read a love story where we aren’t constantly bludgeoned by the narrator’s worship of her paramour’s every feature and virtue. Instead we fine the wholly realistic message that loving someone doesn’t always mean it’s forever, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to annoy you to pieces from time to time.

Though the gulf in maturity may eventually divide Lil’ and Josh, it’s a pleasure to ride shotgun with the pair as they hover in this moment that in some ways, is already in their past. Halpern is a fine writer with an exceptional grasp on the nuanced emotion of the teen years.

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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