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Essential Maps for the Lost, Deb Caletti
Simon Pulse, April 2016
Reviewed from ARC

Girl meets boy. Boy loves girl.

Well actually, girl finds the boy’s dead mother in a lake first.

This isn’t your typical love story with a slice of grief. Deb Caletti hits all the targets for a melancholy teen romance without being redundant. Depression? Yup, but it’s done convincingly and without damaging inaccuracies. Secrets? Oh yeah. Big ones. Internal and external obstacles in our couple’s way? The aforementioned deceased mother.

Essential Maps does all the things that this kind of novel should do well with aplomb and style. For this, Caletti has earned three starred reviews. Every year I beat the drum for straight-up romance to be taken seriously when it comes to awards (and occasionally, I get my wish). Although I probably won’t set my cap at this “prince” for the Printz, it has many praise- and noteworthy qualities.

What makes the romance believable is the story that’s happening while Mads and Billy fall in love. After finding Billy’s mother’s body in the water, Mads cannot shake an obsession with finding out what lead this woman to commit suicide. She’s looking for answers because she’s also depressed and feeling trapped with no options and no say in her own future. Billy’s subplot revolves around his small-scale vigilante justice against abusive and neglectful dog owners. He’s like a modern-day Holden Caulfield, except this catcher in the rye would like to save innocent pups. In a touching scene, Mads helps Billy liberate (i.e.: steal) a clearly malnourished dog from the owner’s yard. In another writer’s hands this could be unbearably twee, but Caletti roots the action in each characters’ motivation so that it’s a natural plot development, rather than a cute detail.

Billy and Mads have parallel stories so of course, Mads also has a small creature she’d like to “rescue” from its unfortunate situation. After silently observing and mentally cataloging the faults of a young couple for whom she babysits, Mads decides she wants to take baby Ivy on an unscheduled roadtrip with no return date. She never does end up becoming a kidnapper but she goes as far as packing her car with everything she thinks she’d need, only to unload everything before the parents return.

Their shared desire to save innocents trapped in a cycle of a neglectful care is a tidy detail but as character development for them as individuals, it makes logical sense. Caletti firmly establishes the toxic familial relationships that Mads and Billy are living with, which supports much of their character traits and motivations. Secondary and tertiary characters are not similarly developed, which is a flaw in terms of character writing but could be seen as a consequence of the novel’s voice.

Caletti alternates writing from Mads and Billy’s perspectives using third person present. It reads like a live transcript of a dream. There’s a haziness around the language; the present tense gives it a sense of immediacy, but the third person limited perspective keeps the reader at a distance. This choice lets Caletti use her authorial voice to occasionally comment on the action, providing dramatic irony and underlining themes or details.

E.L. Konigsburg’s novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler plays a prominent role in this book. Caletti probably leans on it too much though to drive home the idea that both Mads and Billy would like to run away, and not just leave their lives behind for a little while, but drop out of society altogether. It would be their way of rescuing themselves. Both characters feel so trapped in their lives as they are, of course they both want an easy, child-like way out of their situation.

The other major themes Caletti works with are depression and grief. Both Mads and Billy have to come to recognize that they are suffering from these conditions and acknowledge that it’s okay to be feeling that way. It’s a fine, fine line between writing depression accurately and writing a self-help informational guide. Mads’s struggle in Essential Maps is so recognizable because she has such a complicated set of feelings that are sometimes at odds with each other. She resents her mother for making her get a realtor’s license, but she also settles into the idea of having the future figured out already. She wants to run away, but feels responsible for keeping her mother together. Billy’s grief over his mother’s death is mixed with anger for being left and feeling like he was completely unable to prevent her death.

With all of these positives, Essential Maps doesn’t have quite enough to support Printz contention. The sparse character development for all characters outside of Mads and Billy hurts its chances, as well as the numerous coincidences that hold up the plot (which could be forgivable if fate, as a theme, was more prominent in the novel). This is, however, a very sweet novel about finding love even in our darkest moments and that is always worth celebrating.


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