In her latest novel, Well, That was Awkward, author Rachel Vail brings us her classic wit and humor in a book about crushes, flirting, and friendship. With whip-smart dialogue and a relatable narrator whom readers will both cringe and root for, this Cyrano de Bergerac for the digital age is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is poignant; perfect for readers who are navigating the who-likes-who phase of middle school.
When Gracie Grant starts to lose basic reliable skills around AJ Rojanasopondist, you know, like talking and breathing, she’s not sure what it means. Until she’s tasked with finding out who he like-likes. That’s when she learns he’s into her best friend Sienna Reyes, not her, and she feels the surprise but familiar sting of being ‘second best’. Not that she’s not genuinely happy for Sienna, who is generous, sweet, and gives up her Saturdays for charity work. She just wonders what it is about her own too-big nose and too-tall height (according to Riley Valvert, she’s obviously only able to go out with boys who are taller than she is) that makes her such a ‘nexter’: that is, kind of like ‘Switzerland’, being friends with everybody but not ‘in the mix.’
When Sienna starts receiving texts from AJ, the ever-practical girls frantically try to understand how to flirt, and, soon, Gracie finds herself communicating for Sienna, using her signature humor and smarts to woo him into asking Sienna out for the first time. As Gracie continues to text her once-crush from Sienna’s phone, she watches her words lead to her best friend experiencing a series of first dates, parties, and kisses, and Gracie’s self-loathing grows. So does her relationship with Emmet Barnaby, a brother figure she’s known almost all her life, whom she insists is just-a-friend to anyone who asks.
While Gracie tries to sort out the twists and turns in her best friend’s love life, she looks to imaginary conversations with a twenty-three year old sibling she never had, the sister who died before she was born. The death has left a strange hole in her parent’s lives, one Gracie can’t ever seem to fill. Vail’s fast-talking romantic comedy turns tender and moving as Gracie recognizes that the always-smiling, joking, happy-go-lucky façade is not one she can always keep up; not for herself, or her parents and friends.
Vail’s dialogue, both spoken and through text, is delicious to read, and Gracie’s neuroticism is loveable, relatable, and laugh-out-loud funny. The friendships in the book are rich and complex; from the fragility of Gracie and Sienna’s sister-like bond to the comfort and familiarity of Gracie and Emmet’s witty rapport. There’s also the too-eager Dorin Baker and mean girl Riley Valvert, two middle-school tropes that find some nuance and depth in Vail’s capable hands. But, it’s Gracie who remains the bright light in this already shining book. She manages to stay true to who she is, even while struggling to understand what that truth might be.
This is tale of all that’s awkward about middle-school life: navigating a best-friend’s romance, the un-fillable hole a lost sibling may leave behind, and discovering what’s sincere at a time when people are hiding their truths as best they can. Vail brings this awkward time to life without being awkward at all. The novel is as funny as it is tender; a treat for readers of any age.
Well, That Was Awkward is on B&N bookshelves February 28.