A premise that I repeatedly turn to for a good read is that of the atypical or unexpected friendship. Sometimes that is simply the unlikely friendship (Notes from the Dog, Eleanor and Park), or means quirky outsiders who become friends (Stoner and Spaz, The Fault in Our Stars), and is expanded upon as the scarred heroes who heal through a new friendship (A Long Way Down). Althea & Oliver explores this premise somewhat in reverse.
Althea and Oliver grew up together as neighbors since the age of six, she without a mother, he without a father, she impulsive, and he controlled, she starting adventures, he keeping her out of trouble, both as inseparable as a loyal brother and sister. As their senior year in high school looms, Oliver begins to suffer from a rare sleeping disorder at the same time Althea starts to develop complicated feelings about Oliver and their friendship – ultimately clashing in a conflict between the two that threatens to end their friendship. In the middle of this discord, Oliver pursues a solution in the form of a sleep study and treatment in New York City, without telling Althea. Ever a fighter, Althea packs her beat-up car and sets out from their North Carolina hometown to find Oliver and try to remedy their relationship. This separation for the first time they can remember is where debut author Moracho explores possibilities of the individuality for these young adults, adding a different perspective to the teen friendship story – and exploring the benefits and losses of separation, rather than of coming together.
Although the story is a bit slow-moving, the teen worlds of both their hometown and New York come alive, with realistic characters and environments – almost characters themselves – whether it’s the neighborhood they live in, the halls of their school, a house party, or a hospital ward of teens. The characters are real, varied, messy, smart, and sometimes raw, giving the personalities of young people the more complicated treatment which they are due but don’t always get in popular young adult fiction. Some book summaries and reviews dwell on the placement of this story during the 90’s punk scene, and draw attention to Althea as the artist and Oliver the academic, but these aspects of the story seem peripheral in comparison to the characters, place, and exploration of the conflict of the book, which are very well done; perhaps these aspects were highlighted in an attempt to “sell” the more messy and complex whole that is the fully-realized story. I give kudos to this author for resolving one version of a more complicated stage of the friendship arc and the teasing out the gray areas between friendship and individuality.
Check the WRL catalog for Althea & Oliver