That was my first reaction after finishing this powerful book at 1 am last night. After a restless night’s sleep in which I couldn’t stop thinking about this book, I thought I should at least attempt to capture a few words about my reaction to Winger.
All I knew ahead of time was what the blurbs told me: Winger is the story of Ryan Dean West, a 14-year-old eleventh-grader attending a posh boarding school in the Pacific Northwest. Ryan Dean (both parts are his first name — he does not go by just Ryan) has a tendency to get into trouble, as evidenced by his placement in O-Hall (Opportunity Hall), the dorm for kids on disciplinary lockdown, for his junior year. Despite being super-smart (hence being two years ahead in school), Ryan Dean considers himself a loser, a little kid hanging with kids two years older than him, never quite grown up enough to really fit in.
Ryan Dean thinks about girls and sex constantly, when he’s not thinking about rugby. Rugby is the center of his life at PM (Pine Mountain). All students are required to play a team sport, and playing wing on the rugby team, Ryan Dean is part of a greater whole, where’s he’s valued, has mates, and is really good at what he does. His small size doesn’t matter — he’s fast, and he throws himself into it with gleeful passion.
Meanwhile, Ryan Dean is madly in love with his best friend Annie, shares an awful dorm room with a dense and menacing large rugby player named Chas, and is determined to get out of O-Hall as soon as possible so he can pick up with his normal life back in the regular dorms.
But there’s so much more to this chunky book, and before I go any further, take note!
SPOILERS: While I won’t discuss specifics, I think this book is best read without knowing too much ahead of time, so look away if you haven’t read the book! From here on out, I’ll be referencing the book’s ending, not in terms of what happens, but in terms of impact and weight, and you’re really better off not seeing this part before reading the book.
Look away now.
I mean it.
Are you gone?
Winger is light-hearted and funny and heart-warming and utterly charming for about 80% of the journey. I absolutely adored Ryan Dean and his messy life. He’s not the loser he thinks he is. He charms everyone around him, when he’s not pissing them off. He’s obviously smart to the point of brilliance, draws amazing comics, and has a sense of humor that’s just killer. He may be on the little side for a junior, but the girls seem to like him just fine. He’s a terrific athlete, and isn’t afraid to throw himself physically into any conflict (as evidenced by his array of bruises, cuts, stitches, and general state of injury at all times).
Ryan Dean has a big heart, and is a good friend. Even when he’s mad or not quite doing what he should, he’s a decent guy. And I so want things to work out for him.
And then there’s the end of the book, which hit me like a freight engine. I was destroyed. Seriously, utterly destroyed. I could not believe where this book went, seemingly out of nowhere, although of course, the warning signs are all there. And the sense of complete shock and out-of-the-blue tragedy are what Ryan Dean must be experiencing as well. There’s nothing in the earlier parts of this book that warned me to expect such an awful turn of events, and I was simply horrified beyond belief by the way this story ended.
Which is not to say that it’s not a wonderful and beautiful book. It is. But it also knocked me for a complete loop, and here I am, 24 hours later, unable to stop thinking about it.
The writing in this book is empathetic and full of respect for the characters. I felt that the author captured the heart of the story so well, making me see inside the world of this unusual 14-year-old — a pretty remarkable feat, considering I’m nowhere near 14 and I’ve never been a teen-age boy. Still, I could feel Ryan Dean’s joy and pain, and glory with him in the true friendships he forms along his journey. That the end of the book is devastating in no way detracts from the overall success of Winger; and there’s a certain character who is so wonderful and noble and good that he’ll remain with me for a long, long time to come.
I read and loved Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle last year, and I’ve requested a copy of 100 Sideways Miles from the library. At this point, I think I’ll read whatever he writes! I love the humor, the courage, and the heart of his characters, and have found the two books I’ve read by him to be compelling, enjoyable, and thoroughly unique reads.
Okay, final note: I just saw on Goodreads that there’s a sequel coming this year! Stand-Off will be published in September, and will focus on Ryan Dean’s senior year. To which I say… where do I sign up?
Author: Andrew Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May, 2013
Length: 439 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction