100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 2 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
The nitty-gritty: An unusual but fascinating main character, a unique and touching friendship, and a journey of self-discovery that completely immerses the reader.
How can I ever describe the wordless universe I enter at times like these, and do it on paper, using words?
There’s one for the books.
I know this: First, I smelled flowers. Cade and Julia drifted toward me, down the trash-strewn and swirling corridor, followed by two shadow puppets. Maybe they were just the shadows of my own scattered atoms. The flower smell got thicker, almost sickening. I looked up and saw the outline of a horse lying on its side, suspended in the mesh net of chain-link overhead.
Here I come, Caballito!
This was my first Andrew Smith book. I have his other books, Winger and Grasshopper Jungle, on my reading list, but I just haven’t had time to read them. You can bet I’ll be finding time now, though, after reading 100 Sideways Miles. Many of you may be looking at the odd cover and wondering what the heck this book is about. And I can tell you the horse on the cover does play a big part in the story, but not in the way you might think. Smith not only immerses us in the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy, but a seventeen-year-old boy with some very heavy baggage. The story is told in first person from Finn’s rambling and desperate point of view, and covers several months near the end of the school year and into the following summer.
Finn Easton is an epileptic, and has occasional seizures, after a freak accident killed his mother and landed him in the hospital with a broken back. Finn has all the problems of a normal teenaged boy: trying to find a girlfriend, wanting to get rid of his virginity (but not really), and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after high school. But he also has another problem: his father is a famous writer, having written a popular science fiction story called The Lazarus Door which describes a boy named Finn, with an odd scar on his back, who is a human-devouring alien. Finn feels trapped in the version of himself that his father has created, and therefore feels as if he doesn’t have an identity of his own. Even his own scars from back surgery look exactly like the scars on book-Finn’s back.
Near the end of the school year, Finn meets the lovely and mysterious Julia, and suddenly his life seems to have new meaning. But as Finn and Julia grow closer, Finn’s seizures start to happen more frequently, and an upcoming trip to a college in Oklahoma means he will soon need to make some choices about his future. But can Finn truly choose his own path when he’s still living under the shadow of his father’s book?
100 Sideways Miles was not at all what I was expecting, and that is a very good thing! Although there isn’t much of a plot, it doesn’t really matter, because what’s important here are the characters. The story centers around Finn, his best friend Cade, and Julia, the new girl in town. Finn is a dreamy sort of boy who lives much of his life in his own head, making excuses for his annoying and unlikable friend Cade and describing the passage of time in distances—based on the theory that the earth moves twenty miles per second, which becomes an equation for everything he does. Finn’s thoughts are all over the place, which may bother some readers. He jumps from subject to subject, often without any transitions, which made for some jarring sections. He also tends to repeat himself, which I found annoying at first. He talks about his “heterochromatic eyes” (two different colors) over and over, for example. But soon I realized it was just the way his character thinks, and this repetition didn’t bother me much after that.
Cade Hernandez is nearly the complete opposite of Finn, although oddly enough, they look as if they could be brothers. Cade is a character than many readers will hate. He’s extremely rude when he wants to be, he has no filter at all, and he embarrasses people whenever he opens his mouth. But despite all that, his peers seem to look up to him, and I was touched by what a loyal friend he is to Finn.
Julia was a quirky character in her own right, but she almost felt like background noise to me, in some ways. She seems to develop the beginnings of a deep relationship with Finn, but she never lost her unattainability, and felt more like a dream than a real character.
Finn has a dog named Laika, named after the famous dog who went to space in the Sputnik 2, but I spent most of the book feeling sorry for poor Laika. I was worried at first that Finn was going to mistreat his dog, at which point I would have thrown my Kindle across the room and called it quits. But luckily I never had to do that, although Finn isn’t very nice to Laika (he calls her stupid and keeps her in a crate at night), you can tell he really loves her.
There are some spectacularly funny scenes between Cade and Finn involving condoms, as Finn worries about whether or not Julia will want to have sex with him, and much of the humor comes from teenage hi-jinks, as the boys discuss girls, sex and erections. But there is also an air of sadness to the story, with its abandoned prison, dry lake, and William Mulholland’s famously failed dam, which reminded me of my own childhood growing up in the Mojave desert.
In the end, I was rooting for Finn to become the person he wanted to be, not the made-up version that his father created. Smith’s characters are definitely going to stick with me for a long time, particularly Finn, whose sideways view of the world gave me lots to think about.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
You can find 100 Sideways Miles here: