Mom read a review of Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles in her local newspaper – she is olde tyme – that made the book sound like one of the funniest, most heartwarming novels to come along in a years. She even clipped the article from the newspaper and mailed it to me ahead of the book shipment. I wish I had saved that clipping and more than that, I wish I had read the same book the newspaper’s reviewer had read. That book sounded wonderful. The one I ended up with just did not click with me.
Finn Easton, the nice-guy teen protagonist of 100 Sideways Miles, suffers from epilepsy due to injuries sustained as a child in a freak accident that also claimed the life of his mother. Due to Finn’s life-changing accident, the exact nature of which I will not spoil here, he has a unique perspective on life, measuring the passage of time in miles rather than minutes. I had high hopes for a clever and perhaps enlightening implementation of this idea. It ended up being a quirky but impotent character trait. In fact, many aspects of this book felt impotent. Finn sees the ghosts of two little girls a couple of times during the story, but nothing comes of it. The ghosts don’t haunt him, they don’t save him from danger, he gains no insight. What is the purpose of Finn seeing these ghosts? Did I completely miss the point or is this just another odd thing in his life?
Finn’s best friend, Cade Hernandez, a star athlete and charismatic ladies’ man extraordinaire, almost completely repelled me in the early pages. He is arrogant, a troublemaker, he drinks, he chews tobacco (people really still do that?!). Basically, he is the kind of bad influence I would have avoided in high school. Cade is, however, fiercely loyal to and protective of Finn, especially when Finn is having a seizure. This quality redeems him and for this, I can forgive him his other faults. He probably grows up to be a good guy. Sure he is young, reckless and stupid now, but so was I when I was sixteen. His brotherly relationship with Finn reminds me of my relationship with one of my own friends. By the end of the novel, Cade ended up becoming my favorite character and that was a surprise.
A second strong character is transfer student and romantic interest Julia Bishop. She and Finn latch onto each other early. Their relationship is one of mutual respect and care and is as awkward and sweet as it needs to be. Aside from the brotherly relationship between Cade and Finn, the relationship with Julia felt the most authentic and real, if perhaps a bit indulgent of teen male fantasy.
For no reason I could discern, Smith writes a couple of scenes as though they are a script. It is random and pointless and irritated the heck out of me. Had the scenes actually involved a stage play, then it might make sense to present the dialogue and action in this way, but these were scenes just like any other. It is as though Smith grew bored of his own book and decided to switch up the format for a few pages just to be different. One scene is just a conversation between Finn and his father and after rereading it, I see nothing leading or following the scene that supports its presentation as a stage play. The second is a conversation between Cade and Finn. At least this one is preceded by reference to the radio dramas soldiers in World War II listened to followed by “our own blank-screen radio theater played out as something like this”. If the entire reason the scene is written as a radio drama script is because WWII radio dramas were mentioned a sentence earlier, then the reason is as thin and weak as wet toilet paper. Just write the scene. If the scene is so weak that it needs to “punched up” by changing the format for no good reason, then cut the scene or rewrite it.
I haven’t been a teenager for twenty years, but I am fairly certain I did not say “Um” as often as Finn Easton does. Even if I did and even if this is really how teens speak, it was gnash-my-teeth aggravating to have to read “Um” as his response to so many stimuli. I get it that many of us precede a sentence with “um” or “err” or “ah” as we put our thoughts together but Finn Easton seems to be able to communicate a wide variety of thoughts and emotions by just saying “Um”. Dad asks about Finn’s day. “Um”. Friend makes a joke. “Um.” Pretty girl talks to Finn. “Um.” (Actually, I completely understand this one.) Museum attendant is a smart aleck. “Um.” Friend expresses concern for Finn. “Um.” On one hand, dialogue has to be authentic to be believable. People have to talk the way people really talk, but an author can take this too far and I have to say Smith went overboard with Finn Easton’s use of “Um”.
On a positive note, I did learn something from 100 Sideways Miles. The undershirt worn by baseball players, the shirts with the colored sleeves that extend up the shoulder to the collar, is called a raglan. I did not know that, but now I do thanks to 100 Sideways Miles.
Character relationships are the strong point of 100 Sideways Miles, but they were not strong enough to save the story. Ultimately, a disappointing book but I see enough talent in Andrew Smith that I am willing to give one of his other novels a chance. Aforementioned friend recommends Winger so I will try that one with cautious optimism.