Book Review: Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Book Review: Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Better off Friends

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!


The details:

Title: Better Off Friends
Author: Elizabeth Eulberg
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: February 25, 2014
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via NetGalley

Book Review: Revenge Of The Girl With The Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg

Book Review: Revenge Of The Girl With The Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg

16-year-old Lexi has had it up to here. She spends every weekend acting as lackey to her younger sister Mackenzie at beauty pageant after beauty pageant. She works a part-time job to pay for basics while her mother spends thousands of dollars they don’t have on endless gowns and “necessities” for Mac. Her sister is turning into the world’s biggest spoiled brat. And to top it all off, she’s sixteen and has never had a date. She may be considered a Girl With A Great Personality, but is it too much to hope that a cute boy will take notice one of these days?

In this charming, engaging young adult novel, main character Lexi isn’t exactly unpopular — everyone likes her well enough —  but she’s not one of the Beautiful People at school by a long shot:

“In other words, I’m the girl that all the guys go to because, well, I’m the cool chick who they can talk to about the girl they really like.”

Lexi had it drummed into her head long ago that her sister got the looks in the family, so she has basically just stopped trying. She’s great at making people laugh, but her daily look at school is jeans, baggy T-shirt, ponytail, and no make-up. Ironically, Lexi’s dream in life is to study fashion in New York and pursue a career as a designer. She’s got a gift for clothes and wardrobe, but uses it to help everyone but herself.

Finally, on a dare from her best friend, Lexi decides to give glamor a whirl. She gets hair and make-up tips from an expert on the pageant circuit, puts on a dress, and voila! Suddenly, she’s turning heads, getting noticed, and getting boys. While Lexi basks in the glow of her new-found social success, she’s uncomfortable as well. The question remains: Should she have to be a different person in order to get people (boys) to like her? And if a boy who never gave her the time of day is now falling all over her, should she be flattered — or insulted?

Revenge is not just a book about a makeover. Lexi has it pretty tough in her home life. Her parents split up soon after Mac was born, and her mother’s emotional neediness has led her to unhealthy overeating, morbid obesity, horrible money management, and an obsession with pageants. Lexi’s dad is a benign absence; he means well, but just isn’t around. Lexi watches in growing dismay as her mother ignores past-due bills in order to buy new tooth covers (called “flippers” in pageant lingo) so that 7-year-old Mackenzie can have a smile just as perfect as all the other wanna-be beauty princesses.

It would have been easy, I think, for an author to take a preachy approach to this subject matter — beauty is only skin deep, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, blah blah blah. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t help a teen girl who feels invisible every single day of her life. In Revenge, author Elizabeth Eulberg gives the reader (and Lexi) food for thought, but there are no pat, easy answers. Lexi really does feel better when she likes the way she looks. She really does have more confidence when she goes into school and people notice that she’s pretty. She seems to get a new burst of energy once she starts dressing herself with the same care that she puts into advising others on their fashion choices. And yet, she’s very much aware that the boy of her dreams never once saw her as a love interest until she changed her beauty routine, and that the party invitations only started coming her way once she changed who she was on the outside.

So should she have to change to be liked? Where’s the limit between making yourself feel good and remaking yourself to please others? If people only let you into their inner circles if they approve of your looks, is that circle really worth entering?

Lexi is a terrifically likeable main character. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s a good friend, and she tries her best to make her mother see reason. Her home life is a disaster, and I couldn’t help but feel horribly sad for her. Lexi has to shoulder a burden that’s simply unfair for a girl her age, and she struggles through admirably, trying to find a balance between duty and protecting her own wants and needs. When a final disaster pushes her over the edge, Lexi decides to take a stand once and for all, and to say that there are fireworks is an understatement.

Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality zips along, with plenty of quirk and humor to offset the sadness and pain that Lexi experiences. The writing is fast-paced and never dull, and the characters feels relatable and true to life. The biggest take-away message from Revenge seems to be that dressed up or dressed down, you have to be able to live with yourself and the choices you make. It’s not wrong to make changes to try to fit in better, if that’s what you want. The point is to be true to your own happiness, to your friends, and to your own sense of what quality of person you want to be. As Lexi puts it so winningly, as she confronts the school queen of mean:

“I have tried to be like you guys, to be liked by you. And say what you want, but I did it. You all didn’t have time for a loser like me unless I was entertaining you or doing something for you. So I guess deep down, we’re all losers who have something we want to cover up… We’re all the same. So you’re not better than me… You just like to pretend that you are. Why? To make you feel better about yourself.

So I can take off the makeup, but I’m still a good person… But there’s no such thing as bitch remover.”

Oh, snap! Lexi is on fire!

I truly enjoyed Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality. Great characters, convincingly told truths, and a plot with tons of zing — what’s not to love? Highly recommended for teen girls… and their moms, too.

Review copy courtesy of Scholastic via Netgalley.