A Joint Review of Starting From Here, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books), 2012
by TESSA and REBECCA, November 28, 2012 (Happy Birthday to Rebecca’s dad!)
It is our total delight to announce that Lisa Jenn Bigelow will be joining us on Friday for an interview about her debut novel, Starting From Here! Be sure to check back for a chat about Michigan, dogs, and love!
Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother has been dead for almost two years, her truck driver father is always away, her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy, and now she’s failing chemistry. When a stray dog lands literally at her feet, bleeding and broken on a busy road, it seems like the Universe has it in for Colby. But the incident also knocks a chink in the walls she’s built around her heart. Against her better judgment, she decides to care for the dog. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?”
After both reading Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s debut novel, which she was lovely enough to send us, we decided that we wanted to have a little Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia book club about Starting From Here, so the following joint review is brought to you via g-chat. Woo-hoo, technology.
[long period of talking about weird things, including cookies, toilets, and Scotland]
R: Anyhoo, wanna talk about Starting From Here?
T: Yes. Let’s start out by talking about the basic plot.
R: Sure. I really liked that it started with a breakup as opposed to a crush; it had romance and relationships in it, but the structure was totally not the structure of a romance, and the main relationship is with the dog!
T: Yeah! Colby starts out being broken up with by the girl she’s obsessed with [Rachel], and she’s really bummed. So the book kind of fakes you out at the beginning, because I thought it was going to be a pining-after/getting-over book. And it is, but it’s much deeper than that. Colby works through more issues that are brought up by the breakup—family issues, self-esteem issues. But I feel like it’s a fast, almost light read nonetheless, because it has love and hopefulness. I read it in a day. Would you agree?
R: Yeah, it’s interesting that you call it light—to me, it was really quiet. Definitely fast. I, too, read it in a day and it flowed really well, so I read it quite quickly. There’s nothing out of place, no sticking point that tripped me up or made me put the book down. I think that for me, the emotional core of the book (whether I think of it as Colby’s relationship with the dog, or her dad, or her girlfriends) was about Colby’s depression, and, like depression, I felt like I just slid right down into the book and had to read until I came out the other side.
T: Oooh, good description. Yeah, Colby has a relatively good support system, except her dad isn’t around. But her friends can’t save her from herself.
R: Totally. I thought it was a really brilliant description of depression (whether or not we mean that clinically or not) because it built slowly, thing piled on thing, until Colby just couldn’t bring herself to move or change or pull herself out. But Bigelow never says, like “Oh, Colby’s depressed”; it’s just part of her psychic landscape. It felt very real to me, and very relatable.
T: Yes, and so when she hits rock bottom it’s so heartbreaking. And so frustrating that she can’t talk to her dad—I feel like a lot of teenagers (including myself) feel like this around their parents, but with Colby it’s amplified because she knows how important her dad’s job is and she feels like she can’t protest how much time he spends doing it. Plus she can’t find the words or the space to come out to him:
“Even when we spent the day under the same roof, I felt like we were sealed in a crystal bubble. It looked so easy to reach out and touch each other, but there was only so close we’d get before—crack!—knocking each other back.” (187)
This is also mirrored way earlier in a school dance scene—Colby feels so alone!
“I was aware of a girl standing solo across the room trying to catch my eye. . . . I didn’t want to dance with them, bump shoulders with them, feel them soft and vulnerable through their shirts, hoping the negative space in our hearts would somehow add up to a positive.” (84)
R: Yeah, her relationship with her dad was my favorite part (besides the puppy). My favorite part of it is when she tries to get him to buy the pink big rig.
“If dad bought his own rig, he was in this for good. Instead of getting a short-haul job, he’d keep working extralong weeks driving from one end of the country to the other. I’d come home each day with no one to talk to, no one to hug me, no one to just sit on the couch with who remembered and missed Mom the way I did. . . .
‘Tell you what, Bee,’ Dad said, looking up at me, ‘Why don’t you pick one out. What color do you think I should get?’
‘Pink,’ I spat out. . . . Get pink.’
‘I can’t get pink. I’d be laughed off the road. I don’t even know if I could find one. Even lady drivers—’
‘You said I could pick.’ I stared him down, by arms folded across my chest. ‘Promise you’ll get pink, to remember me when you’re on the road. That’s the least you can do.’
For a moment Dad looked—ashamed? Guilty? Both, I hoped. . . .
Dad shook his head, but he said, ‘All right, Colby. I promise.’” (127-8)
It’s such a perfect moment because you can imagine everything that might be going on in his head—trying to please his daughter; being willing to sacrifice for her; knowing something’s wrong but not knowing what; not knowing what to do to make her happy; dreading having to drive a pink truck, etc. And then he actually finds one, and tells her that pink is pink because he doesn’t know the exact shade, she’s like “pink is not pink” (198) and tells him to do whatever he wants since he always does. Broke my fucking heart.
T: Yes, all those things—subtle awkwardness and love between a parent and a kid. I was so happy to read adult characters who were fully fleshed out. Even the vet’s husband wasn’t a two-dimensional character. He could so easily have been “laid off angry dude,” but he had more behind him, and he wasn’t even in very many scenes!
R: Totally. I think that’s one of the things that made it a quiet book for me: each character is really fully fleshed out, but it’s done in such a beautifully economical manner that the book is really bare bones. I feel like every thing I learn about someone is one more pebble in the bowl of them, but there’s nothing that doesn’t do a lot of work. Also, I know it sounds simplistic and superficial, but I love that Colby was a total tough guy whose favorite color was baby pink.
T: Good point.
R: What did you think about Colby’s friends and girlfriends?
T: I felt like as a reader I was seeing more of how Colby saw Rachel than how Rachel actually was. So she remained on a pedestal or tucked away as a painful ideal. I liked how Van was like a brother to Colby, or even a cool aunt. And Amelia . . . I don’t see their relationship lasting after high school, but I liked seeing their appreciation for one another unfold. You?
R: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly about Rachel—we never got to know what the big deal was about her (which seemed very realistic to me); we just knew she broke Colby’s heart. Van did seem super brother/aunt-ish, which I liked because Bigelow didn’t work too hard to portray their relationship; it just was, and it clearly had been for a long time. As for Amelia, I don’t know: I couldn’t tell if Colby’s feelings were about Amelia or about Colby being lonely. I could believe either, and both seem right. Or maybe it was a combination of both.
T: Maybe it was just about feeling good about being with someone who felt good to be with you. I can get behind that.
T: Let’s talk about Mo. Were you a dog person before this book?
R: I feel about dogs the way I feel about other lives I could have lived: I don’t see one ever just existing in my life as it is now, but I think if I’d ever taken a slightly different path then maybe one could. I think dogs are beautiful and cute and I love how loyal they are, but I’ve never really been a dog person, per se. I think part of it is that I’m afraid of the commitment; partly that I think they smell bad unless you bathe them constantly (which I’m too lazy to do); and partly that I may not think I’m worthy of the kind of unconditional love they give you. What about you?
T: I feel similarly. Only recently have I become more dog-positive. I used to just like them but not want to really hang around them, but I’ve met several very cool dogs, and now I like hanging around them (and petting their soft bellies, if they are Pitbulls). But I still can’t see myself owning one, mostly because I feel like I’m too lazy. And because it’s hard to tell if you’ll get a dog that has a dog smell, or one that likes to lick your hands too much. But this book definitely made me more of a dog person. It also helps that I own a cat and could identify with that kind of quasi-maternal love and responsibility
R: Yes. I think I might like a dog if ever I find myself living with a lumberjack in a cabin in the woods and the dog can mostly live outside and like, I dunno, chase sticks and stuff, and only come inside to lie in front of the fire. Dogs seem happiest when they have a purpose, so I think that would be a nice way to have a dog. As I mentioned to you earlier, when I was reading about Mo needing surgery at the vet’s, Dorian [my lovely cat] was sitting on my lap, and I was straight-up sobbing and clutching at her fur, so I definitely felt the pet relationship hard.
T: I also liked that it showed all the facets of having a pet. I’m used to seeing dogs as quest-companions in YA books. They’re supernaturally loyal, already trained, and basically understand English. You don’t see the work that goes into getting a dog to adapt to a habit.
R: Absolutely! (Another reason I don’t know if I could have one.)
R: Yeah? I think I could learn to love it. After all, freshly-cut wood is totes one of my love potion smells, à la Harry Potter!
T: ha ha!
R: I loved the end of the book—I won’t say any more because of spoilers, but I really liked it.
[chat devolves into spoilery personal discussion about our feelings about the end of the book, families, and Scotland.]
T: Anyway, I’m glad we’re in agreement about the fact that people should read this book!
R: Yes! I can’t wait for your interview with Lisa on Friday!
T: It’s going to be great—she’s so nice!
You have just enough time to gobble down Starting From Here before you join us right here on Friday for an interview with Lisa Jenn Bigelow!
We received these books from the author (thank you!), with no compensation on either side. Starting From Here is available now.