Mia, 15, is the second of three children whose parents suddenly decide to divorce. In her upper–middle class California neighborhood, she senses she'll be stigmatized by this, but is "tired of avoiding feeling sad by feeling numb" (the "near-life experience" of the title). She processes her fears and questions in episodic vignettes detailing the changes her parents' split has wrought on herself and her siblings. Newcomer Birdsall is a smooth writer and punctuates her heroine's self-absorbed navel-gazing with gimlet-eyed observations and wry humor. "It's hard to take the government seriously," Mia notes, "when the Terminator runs your state." The build-up to the prom, which ends disastrously, is, however, all there is in terms of plot. The author introduces interesting threads about growing up in Yorba Linda, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, and a romance with Mia's brother's best friend but does not fully develop them. The heroine's epiphany—that in order to work through her problems she's going to have to admit to her patient psychotherapist that she has some—may not be climactic, but there's succor here for kids in similar straits. Even teens whose parents' marriage is intact will likely enjoy Mia's world-weary view. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
VOYA - Susan H. Levine
Winner of the 2005 Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel, Birdsall creates a fast-moving, first-person account of a family falling apart. Until recently, life has been good to Mia, her older brother, Allen, and little sister, Keatie. The family has established a number of traditions-watching Jeopardy!, eating takeout on Friday nights. But now her parents' arguments and her father's rare home appearances have resulted in her parents' decision to separate. The children try to hang on to these traditions as much as they can as their parents' lives change. Their father gets his own apartment and soon has a Peruvian girlfriend, while their mother becomes increasingly involved in her work. Despite Mia's attempts to avoid the problems that are mounting, even refusing to talk about what is going on to her therapist in the hopes that the problems will magically disappear, life at home is disintegrating. Allen turns to drinking and Keatie to watching family videos and thumb sucking. One thing is going well-Mia's crush on Allen's best friend, Julian, has been requited, and Julian has asked her to the prom. Instead of the hoped-for perfect prom, a crisis forces everyone to recognize and face what is happening. Many elements in this work are familiar from other books about family problems, but there is a freshness about the snappy writing style and especially the dialogue that keeps the reader intrigued. Despite the too-quick ending and the incredibly forgiving Haley, Mia's best friend, Birdsall creates sympathetic characters and skillfully depicts a teen having difficulty facing events that are sad, frightening, and overwhelming.
KLIATT - Claire Rosser
An excellent family story by a first-time novelist. We all have heard of near-death experiences; well, Mia, the 15-year-old narrator, has what she calls a near-life experience. "I used to be alive and I know what that's like, but now I'm doing something else. I don't want to die or anything. I just feel like I'm not as alive as I used to be." What's happened? Her father and mother have split up. Her father is living with a Peruvian woman and her mother is working all the time, neglecting her children. Allen, Mia's older brother, is drinking too much, cutting school, and generally behaving badly. Their little sister Keatie is needy and miserable, but their parents aren't parenting her. Allen's best friend Julian has always been part of their family, and Mia has had a crush on him for years. Now, he is interested in her as well. Their romance is making Mia happy, but also changing her focus. She ignores her best friend, not sharing what's going on in her life; and because Julian is with Mia and not hanging out with Allen, Allen's life falls even deeper into chaos. These decent, caring people will resonate with teenagers whose families have broken up, or who have friends in that crisis. Also, Birdsall, the second of ten children, knows exactly how to describe the nuances and complexities of sibling relationships.
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up
Fifteen-year-old Mia Day's life changes drastically when her parents separate. Suddenly Mom is working more and isn't home to cook dinner. Mia's dad has taken up with a sexy Peruvian woman. Her brother, Allen, is acting out. All is not bad in her life, however. Her brother's friend Julian, whom Mia has had a crush on since forever, begins to notice her. She's finally old enough to learn how to drive. Her dad takes her on father-daughter "dates." Finally, Mia's shrink enables her to break through the logjam of repressed emotions she's had about the divorce and to begin to grieve her loss. Divorce and first love are old themes, but the author's spare style, her likable characters, and the witty voice she's given her protagonist set this novel apart. Its short chapters should make it popular with reluctant readers.
Catherine EnsleyCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Mia's vision of her perfect upper-middle-class family lifestyle abruptly changes with very little warning or explanation when her father moves out. Household routines and rituals so comfortably familiar for 15-year-old Mia, her siblings and Mom fade away. As the middle child, Mia recounts not only the negative impact divorce has on older brother Allen and younger sister Keatie, but effectively relates her own feelings of loneliness and isolation, despite the other good things (new boyfriend Julian) that are happening in her life. With Mom withdrawing into her work and Allen developing a drinking problem, Mia feels the weight of responsibility as she reflects on her present through flashbacks of a happier time with Dad's reliable parenting and attention. Written in a realistic, bright, honest, sometimes droll voice, Birdsall's debut portrays the unfortunate side effects of divorce from the perspective of a confused and unhappy young teen who views her parents' behavior as immature and selfish when compared to herself and her siblings. As in life, there is no happily ever after here, just poignant realization that life's circumstances must be worked through and accepted with a great deal of contemplation, understanding and counseling. (Fiction. 13-16)
Read an Excerpt
the way we were
When I was little, my parents held hands in public.
Wandering through grocery stores, in movie theaters, at Linda Vista Elementary School's end-of-the-year carnival. Everywhere. It was embarrassing. They held hands even when we begged them not to. As a result of this constant hand-holding and all that went along with it, I am not an only child. There are three of us: my older brother, Allen, is seventeen, I'm fifteen, and my sister, Keatie, is eight. When I was in ninth grade, the hand-holding stopped, much to my relief. Maybe I wouldn't have been so relieved if I'd realized what that might mean.
Lately, my family has been different. My full-time family has always been my mom, Allen, me, and Keatie. My dad works a lot, so I think of him as more of a part-timer. He comes on vacations with us, is around on weekday mornings and Sundays, and occasionally stops in for dinner on weekdays. My mom complains a lot about how much he works, but the complaints haven't changed anything yet.
The full-time family has always been pretty tight, but lately things have been getting a little . . . loose. We used to hang out together; we'd sit at the same table and do homework while my mom paid bills, or we'd read magazines or play video games (okay, so I don't really play video games, but I'd be there when my brother and sister did). We even sat around and talked sometimes, like families on TV do. During the past few months, Mom has been working more, and Allen's been gone a lot. Keatie and I watch more TV and talk a lot less than we used to.
That doesn't sound like a big deal, probably, but it feels like a big deal to me. I mean, my family isn't boring, exactly, but we have routines:
--We eat dinner at seven o'clock every night, unless there's a dance performance or a violin recital or a soccer game or whatever going on. My dad only makes it to a couple of dinners a week--always on Sundays, and then usually at least one other day. He works a lot, even on weekends.
--Every Friday my brother and sister and I have pizza or Chinese food or some other kind of takeout for dinner, because that's my parents' "date night." When he's in a good mood, Allen gives them an obnoxious piece of advice like "Now, remember, Maggie"--that's my mom's name--"don't think that just because he buys you dinner you owe him something," and then he winks at her, or he'll remind my dad to use protection, or he'll tell them they have their whole lives ahead of them and they shouldn't put all that at risk for a few minutes of fun. He's big on making people as uncomfortable as humanly possible.
--On Saturdays we clean the house. Everyone, even my dad, has an assignment, and they can't do anything fun until they finish their assigned chore.
--My mom puts us each to bed every night. She doesn't tuck us in or anything, she just likes to talk to us before we go to bed. Most nights before I go to sleep, I tell my mom about school, and boys, and who said what about whom. I guess I tell her everything.
--My dad makes our lunches for school every night and puts them in the refrigerator for us so that they're ready and waiting for us in the morning. Unfortunately, he is a big fan of bologna sandwiches, and most of the rest of us aren't. My sandwiches usually end up in the garbage. Allen's friend Julian eats his every once in a while. I don't know what Keatie does with hers.
--Keatie, Allen, and I watch Jeopardy! together; sometimes Mom or Dad will watch with us. Okay, so we don't just watch it. We try to answer the questions, and sometimes we even keep score. (I never said these routines weren't embarrassing or ridiculous.) Or we'll each pick a contestant at the beginning and whoever's contestant wins doesn't have to do dishes.
--My dad takes one of us to lunch once a month. I think this was my mom's idea; when Dad started working a lot, we didn't see him much, and one night Keatie asked my mom when her real dad was coming home. My mom asked her what she meant by her "real dad" and Keatie said, "You know, the one who lives at home, like on TV. The dad we have lives at work." Mom sort of flipped out and Dad started picking us up from school every once in a while and taking us to lunch.
I didn't realize how much I depended on these habits, on the routine, on not having to think or worry about how my family functioned. I didn't realize how much I liked or needed our traditions. I think sometimes you have to lose things to see them for what they really are. Which sounds stupid and obvious and cliched, like that song my mom sometimes listens to in the car about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.
wheels of fortune
I guess I began to notice that something was wrong about three months ago. The three of us, Allen, Keatie, and I, were sitting in the living room, waiting for Jeopardy! to come on, watching Wheel of Fortune and guessing at the answer to a puzzle with only three letters--all Ts--showing. It looked like this:
__ T __ __ __ __ __ T __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
__ __ T __ __ __ __
Keatie guessed, "The Cat in the Hat . . . no, wait . . . Stand
Up to . . ."
I guessed, "Stick My Toe . . . Italy Is Too . . ."
Allen didn't bother guessing. "You guys suck. It's Allen Rules the Universe, Obey His Every Command."
"Al, you always say that's what the answer is, and it never is," Keatie told him.
About then my parents came down the hall into the living room. They were arguing.
My dad said something like "I want you to stop acting like my mother, that's all."
And my mom said something like "I want you to stop acting like a child, then."
We didn't say anything.
I don't know what they were fighting about. It would have been easier to guess the answer to an impossible puzzle with three Ts showing than to even begin trying to understand what was going on between them. And at that point, worrying about my parents' relationship seemed as unnecessary as finding the answer to a puzzle on a stupid TV show. They were fine, holding hands or not. There was nothing to see; we kept on driving, didn't even think about slowing down.
From the Hardcover edition.