Julie Halpern totally won me over with Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, so even though Don't Stop Now didn't promise me nerdy D&D hijinks, I still needed to check it out. There may be no D&D, but I love road trips, so I thought this would be worth a shot - and I was totally right.
When Lillian's sorta-friend, Penny, leaves her a weird voice mail at 4:30 in the morning, Lil doesn't think much of it. "I did it?" What does that even mean? But then her parents started calling. And then the cops. Apparently Penny has been kidnapped?
Except Lil is pretty sure Penny faked it - she kind of mentioned that once. And Lil has a feeling she may have run away to Oregon. So she calls up her BFF (and major-crush) Josh, and the two set out on a road trip from Chicago to Portland with nothing but Josh's dad's credit card and the clothes on their backs. Along the way the dynamic duo stop at all the great tourist-attractions of fly-over country - the Badlands, Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, etc. And Lil keeps hoping that this trip, probably their last great adventure before she moves away for college and Josh starts pursuing his music career in earnest, will be the trip that makes Josh see her as more than just a girl friend.
In between the chapters of Lil and Josh's antics, we also get short, heartbreaking scenes from Penny's life over the last year or so. Glimpses of a family that uses her as nothing more than a baby sitter, and boyfriend that uses her as a doormat - and a punching bag. It's not hard to figure out why Lil might have decided to run away - but did she really fake that kidnapping?
This story is a road trip and story of friendship first and foremost - the long term friendship between Lil and Josh, as well as the lengths Lil will go to in order to help someone who didn't have a lot of options in the friend-department. The romantic angle was played just right. There's some angst here, because Lil has pretty much always loved Josh but he's never seen it, but that never overwhelms their friendship. Even when she's a little disappointed that they only literally slept together in a cozy motel bed, she still has fun with their zany road trip.
Even though for most of the story we only get small insights into Penny, I really liked her as a character, too. Who didn't have a friend/acquaintance that they knew just well enough to say "hi" to at parties and work on projects together if there was no one else in the class? And a lot of us have probably been in friendships like that where one person clearly read a lot more into it than the other did. The vignettes also painted a clear picture of why someone might stay with a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who clearly isn't right for them - who can be outright abusive. It's terrifying and played exactly right - Penny's story lends some gravitas to what would otherwise be a light romantic comedy.
Julie Halpern is two-for-two with me so far. Her characters are always dynamic, funny and honest. I can't wait to see what she comes out with next!