Navigating high school is never easy. In the new YA novel Never Always Sometimes, best friends Dave and Julia decide at the end of their 8th grade year that they will not turn into high school clichés. They want to be unusual, true to themselves, outside of the pack mentality that takes over otherwise normal kids’ lives. So Dave and Julia create a “Nevers” list — all of the high school clichés they vow never to do.
Never be identified by where you eat lunch.
Never host or attend a beer party.
Never hook up with a teacher.
Never date your best friend.
After the 8th grade prologue, the book jumps forward to the end of senior year. Senioritis has definitely set in. College acceptances in hand, there’s only the tedium of continuing to attend classes for the reamining months until graduation. But then Dave finds the crumpled-up old copy of the Nevers list at the back of his locker, and an idea is born: Dave and Julia have made it all the way through high school without doing any of the things on their list — so what if they start doing them now, just for fun?
And so Dave and Julia embark on a wild few months of drunken house parties, hair dying, stalking a teacher, running for prom king, and otherwise breaking out of their own happy little world by embracing the “norms” of high school life.
Of course, there are glitches. Dave and Julia have spent all of high school as a complete entity of two. Best friends, whose lives absolutely revolve around one another. They’ve never needed anyone else, and so haven’t bothered with anyone else. They’re not unpopular, exactly — but they’ve also never admitted anyone else into their sphere. When they start their “nevers” project, they’re shocked to discover friendship, fun, and acceptance, and to discover that there are other people worth hanging out with.
The biggest problem of all, though, is that Dave has spent all of high school madly in love with Julia, but never acknowledging it. He’s never had reason to think she might return his feelings, and it’s the classic “wouldn’t want to ruin our friendship” situation, from Dave’s perspective. He’s never dated anyone else, because all he can see is Julia. Julia has dated a bit, but nothing serious — most likely because, at the end of the day, neither really needs anyone else in their lives.
Where it goes from here, well… jump down to the spoilers section if you really want to know. Let’s just say, while there are crazy antics and adventures galore, Dave and Julia also discover plenty of unintended consequences.
I really liked the characters of Dave and Julia. They’re smart and funny, and their banter and easy joking manner with one another is cute and fun. It’s plain to see that they fit together perfectly in their friendship. Their isolation from everyone else might be misguided, but then again, their little universe really does seem complete at times.
The overall arc of the story is engaging and fast-paced. There are emotional issues addressed: Dave’s mother died when he was nine, and I think he gets the warmth and affection from Julia that his still-mourning father and brother don’t really provide. Julia has a happy home life with her two dads, but she’s drawn to her absent bio-mom, who’s a special, free-spirited butterfly who sends postcards from around the world describing her unique and extraordinary experiences, but who’s never actually there for Julia in any real way. The crux of the “nevers” list and Julia’s devotion to it may come down to her unresolved feelings toward her mother — is she embracing this idea of being outside the social norms as a way to prove to herself that she’s worthy of her mother?
The idea of escaping clichés is explored in many ways in this books. Julia and Dave have managed to be outsiders throughout high school, but when they set out — ironically — to join the crowd, they discover that being apart from the crowd all this time deprived them of some legitimate fun as well. Maybe everything they scorned isn’t all bad — maybe there are people who might enhance their lives, instead of just being looked down upon as sheep.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, SO AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!
When Dave finally admits to Julia that he likes a girl he met at a party, Julia is hit over the head with the realization that she’s loved Dave all along. These two. Their timing sucks. Because Dave can finally have what he’s always wanted, but he’s not sure it’s actually what he wants anymore.
Dave and Julia do finally hook up, but only after he’s gotten involved with a sweet, popular, “normal” girl. The cliché, from countless YA novels, is the idea of best friends finally realizing (usually at the end of the book) that they’re actually perfect for each other romantically as well. That’s not the case here. They should be perfect together, but once they start sleeping together, Dave realizes that a romantic relationship with Julia actually doesn’t work for their friendship.
I’ll admit that I didn’t quite buy this scenario. Is it just a matter of timing? If Dave hadn’t started dating Gretchen, would things have worked with Julia? I’d almost have preferred to see it play out without the complication of another love interest, so it would be clearer whether Dave’s love for Julia was always just an unrealistic crush on a best friend, or if their connection really could have turned into a romantic connection too.
I feel the need to add that a sex scene that marks the turning point of the story was very odd — at least, it was to me. There’s a casual air to it that seemed out of place, especially for two characters for whom it’s so momentous an occasion in their history together, as well as given the fact that they’re both virgins at the time. In addition (and this may seem kind of nitpicky), there’s no mention in the scene as to whether they’re having protected or unprotected sex. If it’s not specified, do we assume it’s unprotected? I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop (metaphorically speaking), but this part of the equation was never mentioned. It felt to me like it would have been easy to include a reference to the character reaching for a condom, because otherwise, especially given the setting, the unplanned nature of the event, and the virginity of the two characters, it really seems like they just went for it without protection. And not that I feel that YA lit needs to get preachy, but I do think a quick mention of protection wouldn’t have hurt the scene at all and would have sent a positive message about responsibility and taking care of oneself.
I also had a bit of a hard time with the subplot of Julia trying to seduce her math teacher, awkwardly and jokingly, of course, but I found it hard to find this part funny. It just felt kind of weird and awful to me, but maybe that’s my adult brain taking over and criticizing the actions rather than seeing the hilarity of it (which clearly Julia was feeling).
I do want to mention that the writing in Never Always Sometimes is really a stand-out in the crowd of YA fiction. I just loved the author’s ability to paint pictures with language and to use clever word play to evoke a feeling or sum up a situation. For example, I loved this:
How Julia had felt something so deeply for so long without knowing it herself was a mystery. As if love was a fugitive harboring in an attic, hidden even from the people residing in the house.
Before, when Dave had dreamed about love, this is what it looked like:
It was lazy. Love was lazy as hell. Love laid around in bed, warm from the sheets and the sunlight pouring into the room. Love was too lazy to get up to close the blinds. Love was too comfortable to get up and go pee. Love took too many naps, it watched TV, but not really, because it was too busy kissing and napping. Love was also funny, which somehow made the bed more comfortable, the laughter warming the sheets, softening the mattress and the lovers’ skin.
END OF SPOILERS
Wrapping it all up, I did actually enjoy Never Always Sometimes very much. The balance between serious and funny was kept up very well throughout, and the story explores some interesting ideas about best friendship and trying so hard to be different that you end up missing out on so many good experiences along the way. Julia and Dave are both great characters, although since we spend a lot more of the story viewing events through Dave’s eyes, I felt as though I was playing catch-up a bit when the narrative shifts to Julia’s perspective.
As I mentioned, beyond the plot, I really enjoyed the author’s use of language and his writing style, and I’d love to read more of his work.
This is a fun read that has some good food for thought too. Recommended for anyone who enjoys contemporary YA fiction — and if you’re a parent to a teen, I could see this book generating some really good discussion, if you’re open to it.
Title: Never Always Sometimes
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: August 4, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary fiction
Source: I won an ARC in a giveaway! Thank you to Krystal at Books Are My Thing!