When Julie arrives in Boston from small-town Ohio to start her college adventure, she’s in for a rude awakening. The apartment she’s rented (and paid for via cashier’s check — not smart) doesn’t exist… although there is a bustling burrito place at the same address. Left on the sidewalk with all of her suitcases and no place to go, Julie is taken in by the family of her mother’s college roommate, although the two have been out of touch for years.
Julie is welcomed into their large home, and despite the family’s oddities, finds it warm and comfortable. Odd? You bet… especially the life-size cardboard cut-out that the youngest, 13-year-old Celeste, takes with her wherever she goes. Flat Finn looks just like real Finn, the absent oldest brother who, Julie is told, is busy traveling the world on a non-stop adventure combining volunteer work and thrill-seeking. Flat Finn sits at the dinner table with the family, comes in the car to drive Celeste to and from school, and watches over Celeste when she sleeps at night.
When it turns out that there simply are no affordable apartments to be had and the dorms are all full, Julie’s temporary refuge turns into a permanent arrangement for the year. The family loves having Julie around, and she forms a tight friendship with middle brother Matt, a self-proclaimed geek studying at MIT who lives at home and seems to be Celeste’s main caretaker. Meanwhile, Julie also finds Finn on Facebook and strikes up an online friendship with him… which turns into a flirtation… which turns into a whole lot more.
But why is Celeste so socially awkward and friendless? Why are the parents almost never around? What IS up with Flat Finn, and why will no one explain to Julie? What it with all the underlying weirdness?
Flat-Out Love is a fast-paced read filled with humor as well as sorrows. The Watkins family members clearly have secrets and painful incidents in their past, but author Jessica Park handles it all with a light touch. There’s no needless melodrama here — we see everything through Julie’s eyes, with a mixture of amusement, bafflement, and frustration. Julie truly cares about the family, and is able to slowly gain Celeste’s trust and help bring her out of her shell, and yet she’s still kept in the dark about all of the reasons for the family’s problems, up to and including Flat Finn.
There’s a love triangle, which in many books is enough to send me running for the hills, but it’s actually handled quite well here. Julie spends almost every day with Matt and has a close connection with him, but Finn is the one who makes her feel more, despite never having met him.
An underlying story about Julie’s absentee father and their strained relationship is underdeveloped and feels rather tangential to the whole story. Other than that, the author does a nice job of capturing the excitement of the freshman year experience, including new friends, a new city, the chance to break away from the social pressures of high school and start fresh, and the joy of finding classes and professors who inspire you.
I did pretty much guess the family secret right away (really, it wasn’t hard), but that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the story — and I still found myself gobbling up the final chapters to get all the details and see how it would all turn out.
The dialogue is funny and breezy, and I liked the little touches such as Facebook status updates from the different characters and ongoing commentary on Matt’s choice of geeky T-shirts.
I was interested to note that Flat-Out Love was self-published via Amazon. I always assume that self-published books won’t appeal to me, but Flat-Out Love showed me that I should perhaps expand my horizons a bit!
I definitely recommend Flat-Out Love. It’s a great choice for anyone looking for a quick and light read that mixes quirky humor with real emotion. I understand there’s a companion novella (Flat-Out Matt) and a sequel (Flat-Out Celeste), and I hope to track down both.
Title: Flat-Out Love
Author: Jessica Park
Publisher: Amazon Children’s Publishing
Publication date: 2011
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction