I noticed the book immediately: a colorful, unmistakably travel-esque picture topped with a billboard that evoked both Broadway and freeway diners, staring out from a new display in my much-loved young adult section. But the best part? The display was for LGBTQ fiction.
I love—love —teen lit about queer girls. As it turned out, the novel involved plenty more of my favorite things, like musical theater and revelatory road trips, and is easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. Auspiciously, it’s also been given a place in the top ten books of the 2011 Rainbow Project. While Dead Best Friend can be called a coming-out story, the main character’s queerness is far from the main conflict, unlike the majority of lesbian-related books in the YA catalogue. While I love many such books, I appreciate plot arcs that incorporate more; after all, we have adventures too! (As with Malinda Lo’s Ash, we’d do well to overlook the douches who target this and other books for not “warning” potential readers by showcasing characters’ sexualities front-and-center.)
Horner’s novel is set into motion by the death of protagonist Cassandra’s best friend, Julia, a popular drama geek who leaves a void in her classmates’ lives and an awkward distance between her clique and her best friend, who has never quite fit in with the group on her own. For months before she perished in a car accident, Julia made reference to her “secret project,” which turns out to be a finished draft of an original, and delightfully goofy, musical. When the drama group vows to put on the show, another figure from Cassie’s past appears: Heather, who homophobically bullied her throughout junior high. Heather seems to have changed a lot, but when she makes off with the role Julia clearly wrote for herself, Cassandra takes Julia’s ashes and vows to spend the summer bicycling across the U.S. After all, Julia always wanted to go to California.
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend proceeds with dual narratives of the following summer and autumn, which take place on the road and while helping to prepare the musical. The much-touted joie de vivre of road trips marks every summer-focused page and emphasizes how difficult it can be to return to one’s dull school life, especially without one’s greatest ally. There’s also a sense of failure in the autumn portion, an intimation that Cassie’s journey did not go as planned, but we have to keep reading to learn what has transpired, and it’s a lot. In addition to her grief, the cross-country trip is tied into Cassie’s confusion about her friendship with Julia, which sometimes felt romantic. Inexperienced at dating and unsure of her sexuality, she struggles to come to terms with their lack of resolution while fielding bike problems and exploring romantic opportunities en route to California. In the autumn storyline, as Cassie tries to move forward with the drama crowd on her own merit, she struggles to work with a script that has the deceased title character’s fingerprints all over it… and has an unexpected love interest. Don’t worry: even if you see that part coming (and you will) it comes off as charming, unformulaic, and real.
First-time novelist Emily Horner (pictured), who has appeared as a panelist at the feminist sci-fi convention WisCon, is one to watch. Apparently she’s working on a teen-geared fantasy novel. Count me in!