On “Alex, Approximately” by Jenn Bennett

514G-2avVpL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jenn Bennett‘s latest novel Alex, Approximately is everything a summer read should be. There’s romance, California sunshine, foggy mornings, surfers, and classic films. What more could you ask for?

Bennett weaves her tale of love, personal growth, and overcoming the lasting effects of trauma with the sights and sounds of coastal California. The imagery of massive redwood trees and boardwalk activity imbues Bennett’s story with a sharp vividness that blooms in the reader’s mind. Through those details, the complex relationship between Bailey Rydell and Porter Roth takes shape.

The novel begins with Bailey’s decision to move across the country because her mother’s marriage to “Nate LLC” is more of a sparring match than a sacrament. After a trauma in her youth involving one of her mother’s unhinged clients, Bailey becomes an evader, branding herself “The Artful Dodger.” She hates confrontation and being put under the spotlight, so when things get heavy, she’s out of there faster than you can bat an eye. Bailey has her evasion tactics down to a science, and she’s prepared to put them to good use when she gets to Coronado Cove.

For several months, Bailey has been corresponding with a fellow classic film lover on an online forum who goes by “Alex.” It isn’t just their love of old movies that make them compatible, though. They get each other in ways others don’t. (What would a YA novel be without a “you-get-me-like-no one-else gets-me trope?”) When Alex invites Bailey—known only as “Mink” online—to a film festival in his hometown of Coronado Cove, Bailey decides not to tell him that she’ll be moving there. To her, it seems like the best way to avoid a sticky situation is to find Alex first and determine whether or not revealing herself would be a good idea.

All she has to go on are a handful of details that Alex has dropped into their conversations: he works in his family’s store on the boardwalk, the store is near a churro cart, and there’s a stray cat hanging out in front. Not much to go on, but Bailey is determined.

Unfortunately, her sleuthing has to take a back burner to her new summer job in “the Hotbox,” a ticket booth in Coronado Cove’s most popular attraction, where Porter Roth becomes her archnemesis.

Porter is incredibly good-looking and charming, but is also, in Bailey’s terms, “a goddamn dickbag.” When provoked, young Bailey does not mince words.

But that’s not really like her. Bailey never gets provoked; she never lets anyone get under her skin that way. Something about Porter makes her blood boil…and elicits some other unholy feelings. She’s still determined to find Alex, but, somehow, Porter keeps getting in the way.

Soon enough, Alex and Mink are talking to each other less and less. Bailey assumes he’s found a girlfriend, which leaves her in a confusing entanglement with Porter. Being with him forces her to break out of the defense mechanisms she’s developed. “The Artful Dodger” goes on an indefinite hiatus as Bailey finds herself opening up to new friends.

Bennett does an exceptional job of parsing out the nuance of Bailey’s relationship with Porter. As things progress, she has to come to terms with change and learn how to trust Porter with the most difficult parts of her past.

I was also interested to find that Bennett promoted a clear, sex-positive message throughout the book, which was uncommon in what I read as a teenager, but is, perhaps, important for young people to read. People often feel quite a lot of shame when it comes to the physical aspect of relationships, but Bennett presents sex as a natural, healthy thing.

Some of the character development for supporting characters fell short of expectation. For instance, Bailey’s mom (What the heck is up with that situation? What parent, no matter what they’ve gone through, allows their kid move across the country and then doesn’t speak to them once? Not a plausible part of the narrative, in my opinion) and Davey (I felt genuinely horrible for this kid. Also, Porter was a legit asshole for fucking with his bum leg. Like his life isn’t already ruined. Just saying.)

But Bailey and Porter grow a lot over the course of the novel, and it’s refreshing to see the roughest parts of that process. The love-hate relationship that unfolds in the beginning of their relationship becomes “compatible arguing” when the two realize they respect each other.

It’s a well-fashioned story, with enough quirk to make it exceedingly charming. There were, however, a few irksome moments…

*This portion of the review contains spoilers*

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Porter and Bailey are Alex and Mink. (There are a lot of Tell Me Three Things/You’ve Got Mail vibes going on.) Somehow, though, the initial reveal is not a happy moment. Porter finds out when Bailey’s dad calls her Mink in front of him and he freaks out (irrationally, in my opinion) because he believes Bailey still has feelings for “Alex” and has been keeping this secret from him.

To an extent, it’s easy to understand why Porter would have trust issues; his best friend is a drug addict who steals from his current girlfriend and slept with his ex-girlfriend. Believing that Bailey has kept something from him after they’ve built a relationship on the mutual disclosure of painful memories is enough to seriously freak him out.

BUT…I didn’t get why Porter wouldn’t just tell Bailey about the whole thing once he realized there was nothing to be concerned about. Instead, he tries to make her figure it out, which causes Bailey to lose her shit. (Also, why wouldn’t her dad tell her??? So much confusion for nothing.)

As a plot device, the whole situation is definitely one way to move the narrative forward to its happy conclusion, but goddamn…Everyone just needs to calm the hell down. Hormones are raging and all the California heat has gone to their brains, which is extremely unhelpful for rational discussion. The way the ending played out was ultimately frustrating, but I guess there’s nothing like a healthy dose of dramatic irony to get the juices flowing.

In the end, Alex, Approximately is a quirky, fun read that mixes the light-hearted with the heavy in a way that produces a well-crafted take on the YA formula.

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