Book Review: Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg
A little like When Harry Met Sally for teens, Better Off Friends asks the question, “Is it really possible for a boy and a girl to be just friends?”
Macallan (yes, she’s named for the whiskey) and Levi just click from the very start, when Levi moves from California to Wisconsin right at the start of 7th grade. He’s the new kid worried about fitting in and making friends. Macallan has troubles of her own, still recovering from her mother’s shocking death in a car accident the previous year. Yet somehow, these two get each other, moving quickly from the discovery of a shared loved for a (fictitious) BBC comedy to best friend status, finishing each others’ sentences, being relatively unsufferable to those trying to get a word in edgewise, fitting into each others’ families, and really connecting in the way only true friends can.
Their friendship continues, with its share of ups and downs, into high school. They manage to survive the awful fall-out from Levi dating Macallan’s best girl friend, as well as a variety of other awkward moments that might break up a less solid friendship. But Levi and Macallan are totally strong and inseparable — until things start to fall apart. As Levi finally gets what he always thought he wanted — guy friends, success in sports, a crowd to hang out with — he has less time and attention for Macallan. Meanwhile, she’s realizing that friendship with Levi isn’t quite as easy or comfortable as it was in their younger days.
For years, people have always assumed that these two were “together” — and they really can be quite frightful when they’re on a roll with their in-jokes, ignoring everyone else around them, completely oblivious to their other friends, or even their current boyfriend or girlfriend. An attempt at a double-date is never repeated, after it ends disastrously (and also somewhat hilariously).
But when Levi finally starts to wonder what it is that he feels for Macallan, their friendship enters rocky territory, to the point where it looks doubtful that they can survive it at all. Plagued by doubts and worries and serious miscommunication, Levi and Macallan each have to decide whether it’s worth pursuing something more… or whether they really are better off friends.
How many times have you seen a character in a book or movie use the excuse “I don’t want to ruin our friendship” as a reason for not going out with someone? Totally lame, right? Well, in Better Off Friends, not ruining the friendship is the crux of the problem, and it’s not at all lame. I loved seeing how much Levi and Macallan care about each other and how vital their friendship is for both of them. Neither of them can stand the idea of ruining it… but their inability to be honest and take a risk may destroy the friendship anyway.
Told in alternating voices, we get to hear in first-person perspective from both Macallan and Levi the history of their friendship and to see how it grows and changes over the years. Each chapter ends with a bit of banter between the two. It comes across like a recounting of their history, so that after Macallan tells the story of the first time she met Levi, we hear a few choice comments from Levi –usually snarky and funny — telling what he thinks of Macallan’s version of events. It’s a nice touch, and it lets the reader know that they’re in this together and enjoying the tales from their past. It does also remove a little element of suspense: Since the story is told as the two of them looking back on their shared history, there’s really no fear that they won’t end up at least as friends, if not more.
Insta-love seems to be all too common in YA fiction these days. They meet, they exchange five words, they looks into each others’ eyes — and BAM! It’s true, deep, soul-scorching love. (It definitely helps if one is from the wrong side of the tracks, or has a troubled past, or is hiding a deep, dark secret). Better Off Friends is like the antidote to insta-love: When romance finally becomes a possibility, it’s after years of friendship and a true, deep connection. We feel like the characters have earned it; love feels organic for these two, and not something forced on a pair of characters in order to fit a formula.
In fact, Better Off Friends is so far from formulaic that reading it feels like a breath of fresh air. Other than the fact that a main character has lost a parent at a young age, nothing in this book feels like a retread of what’s trendy in teen fiction at the moment. I enjoyed the originality of the characters and the care and detail devoted to letting us get to know them. Their struggles to pursue their own interests and passions, balance these with school and home demands, and figure out how to still be a good friend felt realistic and appropriate for their ages, and it was interesting to see how the two grow over the years from nervous middle school kids to confident high school juniors.
Last year, I read Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, and loved the honest way in which the author approached the problems and challenges of a terrific main character. (You can check out my review here.) After reading Better Off Friends, I’m adding Elizabeth Eulberg to my list of incredibly talented YA writers whose work I’ll always want to check out.
If you enjoy contemporary young adult fiction with main characters you can care about, definitely give Better Off Friends a try!
Title: Better Off Friends
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via NetGalley