EPIC JOINT REVIEW: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary, Part I
REVIEW PART I
Note to readers: While spoilers are hidden in this review, there are big ones under the cuts so click on the view option at your own risk. -Janine
Jennie: Be forewarned, readers – Janine and I had *a lot* to say about this book. This was a very long review discussion that has been split into two pretty long review discussions.
Janine and I reviewed this author’s second book, The Switch, together last year, after both reading and loving her debut, The Flatshare (which Janine turned me on to). The Switch was not quite the winner for me that The Flatshare was, and it was, I think it’s fair to say, a genuine disappointment for Janine. Still, I went into The Road Trip with high hopes.
I’m just going to say upfront that I had some conflicts within myself about this book. I’ve said before: I tend to grade by the heart rather than the head. So if a book moves me, involves me, compels me, it’s going to get a better grade. That’s true with The Road Trip, but I don’t think I often have my head yelling quite so loudly, “BUT….!”
The story is told alternately in present day and in flashbacks, and alternately by the protagonists, Addie and Dylan. In the present day, Addie and her sister Deb are driving to Scotland to their friend Cherry’s wedding. They have a passenger, Rodney, a co-worker of Cherry’s who asked for a lift on the wedding’s Facebook page.
The group hasn’t gotten very far when they’re rear-ended by a car that happens to be driven by Addie’s ex, Dylan. Dylan is headed to the wedding with his best friend Marcus, but now his car is too damaged to drive. Somehow, despite the extreme awkwardness of circumstances, Dylan and Marcus end up in the car (a tight fit!) with Addie, Deb and Rodney.
Janine: They are a motley crew. Addie, a schoolteacher who’s twenty-five, has regained equilibrium and attained a measure of self-confidence in the twenty months that followed a devastating breakup with Dylan. Dylan, a twenty-six-year-old English lit graduate student/aspiring poet from a posh background, is still pining for her. Deb, Addie’s biracial half-sister (all the other characters except Cherry’s fiancé, Krishna, who has an Indian background, are white as far as I can tell), is a new, intentionally single mother who gives zero fucks for anyone’s opinion and can’t stand Marcus. Marcus, Dylan’s privileged, sarcastic asshole best friend since childhood, picks on Rodney, who is awkward, clueless, and has no friends.
Their quirks and patterns of behavior–Deb stops to expel breast milk for her baby at home and is open to picking up strangers on the way, Rodney offers everyone flapjacks he brought with him in Tupperware, Marcus balks at Addie’s country music–create friction and hilarious situations. That was probably my favorite aspect of the book.
Jennie: The story then goes back four years to the beginning of Addie and Dylan’s romance. They meet in Provence during a magical summer; Addie (then twenty-one) and Deb are working as caretakers for the summer at Cherry’s family’s villa (Cherry was Addie’s college roommate and is middle-class Addie’s entrée into an unfamiliar, wealthy world).
Deb, adventurous and confident, goes off to meet up with a fling for a few days (with Addie’s blessing), and the expected guests – friends of Cherry’s family – don’t show up. Or, rather, at first, only one family member shows up – Dylan.
The attraction between the two is immediate and intense. Dylan forgets about the girl he’s been chasing around Europe, Grace, and Addie leans into the “summer Addie” persona she’s cultivating – someone more poised and seductive than she imagines herself to be. The two would consummate their attraction immediately but for the untimely arrival of Dylan’s boorish Uncle Terry; his presence restrains them for a couple of days. But eventually they do fall into bed, and quickly into young love.
Their idyll is interrupted by a gaggle of Dylan’s friends – first Marcus, and later Grace, Cherry, and some other girls from Dylan’s recent university days. Addie, panicked among so many posh strangers, summons Deb back.
By the time Dylan and Addie part a few weeks later – he’s continuing a sort of grand tour with Marcus – the two have said their “I love yous” and made plans to reunite back in England. But the seeds of what are to become bigger problems are already evident.
Most of the issues are Dylan’s. Addie is a little unsure of herself; a little worried that Dylan will lose interest if she doesn’t maintain her “fun Addie” persona. Back at home, she starts her career as a teacher, lives with her family and misses Dylan (who takes a long time to return home; he’s avoiding having to decide what to do with his life).
Janine: Addie wasn’t wholly consistent and understandable but she was much more so than Dylan and Marcus. And of all the characters in the book, she was the most likeable in the common meaning of the word. She was easy to sympathize with and her insecurities only got more relatable. An “everywoman” figure.
Jennie: Absolutely – Addie felt real to me even though she doesn’t have either the eccentricities or emotional/mental health issues that the rest of the characters manifest.
Dylan is considerably more troubled. He comes from a family with money, though there are hints that they were once aristocracy-rich and lost a lot of it, so now his father is very business oriented and insistent that Dylan – who wants to be a poet – go into business with him. Dylan’s relationship with his father is tense; his father is ultra-critical and dismissive of Dylan.
Janine: Incidentally, I felt that Dylan’s father was a cliché. He was very much the haughty/cold/disapproving rich/upper-class father.
Jennie: He is not a very complex character, I agree. But I felt that the way he’d raised Dylan created some believable insecurities in his son.
Dylan’s mother is more loving but cowed by his father. Circumstances are not helped by the fact that Dylan is dependent on the allowance he still receives, even though he’s 22.
But Dylan’s biggest problem, and in a sense the book’s biggest problem, is Marcus. Dylan’s best friend since early school days, Marcus is allegedly charismatic and allegedly can be a good guy. But what Marcus mostly is: alcoholic, chaotic, self-indulgent, erratic and very nasty, especially to Addie.
Marcus’ friends, chief among them Dylan, cater to his moods in the way you might a terrifyingly powerful baby in a horror story. “Oh, Marcus acts like that when he’s bored.” “You can’t let Marcus get hungry or bad things will happen!” It’s puzzling and frustrating to Addie, and I felt the same as a reader.
Janine: The depiction of this dysfunctional three-way was by far the worst thing about the book, and since it’s what the book is in essence about, that’s a huge problem. Part of the issue is that nobody’s motivation here makes sense, and another is that it made me despise Dylan. I’m about to let forth an epic rant, so just jump in wherever you feel like.
I don’t understand why Addie can’t get over Dylan for twenty months or why she takes him back. Why??? For the bulk of the time they are together, he treats her like crap.
I think the behaviors I mentioned should have been red flags to Addie, which means her motive for not recovering from her heartbreak and moving on in close to two years is almost as weak as Dylan’s for his actions. She should be counting herself lucky to have seen the light and bailed.
Jennie: She seemed to have a lot of guilt over her (in my mind, relatively minor) part in their breakup.
Janine: Guilt and yearning are very different emotions.
Janine: Marcus, though an antagonist for most of the book, is–at least in the flashbacks of the first half–a far more vibrant and engaging character than Dylan. He makes choices and takes actions to change his situation whereas Dylan is passive. He cracks a lot of jokes. Sarcastic, biting ones, but at least he has a sense of humor, something Dylan could have used a hefty dose of.
In fact, Marcus drives the plot more than anybody else. So much attention is paid to him by the novel that it is possible to make a good argument that he’s the book’s central character. This term doesn’t always mean protagonist—I mean that if this were a movie, then I can’t decide which role would be at the top of the credits.
The Marcus of the flashbacks in the book’s first half was interesting enough that I’d have much preferred to read an edgy menage novel with early Marcus, future Dylan, and Addie a couple more years down the road, or a twisty thriller that also included the chic, ironic Grace.
Jennie: I think, honestly, that this weird triangular relationship, as dysfunctional as it was, felt new and different in a way kept me very engaged. Marcus is a villain, but he’s an interesting one.
Janine: Agreed. But isn’t it a problem when the villain is more engaging than the hero?
Jennie: It is.
On the positive side, I really love the structure of alternating flashbacks with present-day events in a romance (I feel like some readers don’t?). I find it allows me to have my cake and eat it too. I’m not just turning the pages getting through drama and conflict for the good part of a relationship – I get to have all of the elements mixed up in a satisfying way. In this story events in both timelines converge as we learn what tore Addie and Dylan apart the first time, and the tension between the characters comes to a head in the present.
Janine: I like this structure too and it’s the right choice for the book. Goodness knows I could not have put up with the middle of the book had this story been told linearly.
Jennie: Absolutely agree.
In the present timeline, events conspire to cause the road trip to stretch hours and hours beyond its intended length. There’s a breakdown, unexpected traffic, a trip to the emergency room – everything that can go wrong does. Meanwhile, Addie and Dylan are circling each other, still feeling the pull of attraction but also caught up in their feelings about the way and the reasons they parted. And Marcus is there, allegedly “better” and working on himself, but still acting like a total ass to Addie and everyone else.
Janine: The present timeline was stronger than the one set in the past. O’Leary has a stronger command of her material when she’s writing gentle or lighter material than when she’s attempting strum und drang.
Jennie: In my “heart”: I really like the author’s prose style and humor, and I liked Addie and Dylan (the latter with some reservations). I was rooting for them and anxious to get a fuller picture of what devastating event caused Dylan to walk out on Addie.
Janine: When she’s not writing cheesy poetry, O’Leary’s prose style is very good. The descriptions of Provence were gorgeous and she crafted an evocative atmosphere for the villa. I too love her humor (Deb especially cracked me up); it can go from wry to snarky to satirical. Like you, I started out rooting for Addie and Dylan and turning pages fast. But by the end I was so disgusted by their “love” that the last chapter or two dragged more for than four hours at the DMV.
Jennie: In my “head”: there are a lot of issues. The story gets darker and darker towards the end, as both Marcus’ and Dylan’s self-destructive tendencies come to the fore, and Addie endures a traumatic event that came out of left field for me.
The darkness made the book feel unbalanced to me – what was the story of a young, somewhat immature couple who had a big blowup and are now forced to confront their feelings after a year and a half apart, all in the confines of a small car and the stress of the road trip from hell, becomes something else.
Janine: Yeah. The humor and angst are poorly balanced. The present-day trip to the wedding plays out like a movie comedy, while the flashbacks quickly turn angsty and even grim. The two storylines are so markedly different in tone that they don’t mesh. Some amount of contrast is good and necessary in a dual timeline story, but given that these were still the same three people who had spiraled into such a dysfunctional dynamic together it doesn’t work well here. The jumps back and forth from the comedic present to the grim past gave me whiplash once I reached the darker parts.
PART II to come Wednesday…