Review: Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett
Dear Jenn Bennett,
I’d heard such good things about Alex, Approximately so I borrowed it from my local library. Even though I’m not a big fan of paper books these days, it was totally worth it.
Bailey Rydell is 17. Her parents are divorced and she’s been living in Washington DC with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, “Nate LLC”. She grew up in New Jersey but had only been in Washington for a few months and felt no particular kinship with the city. Bailey’s dad lives in Coronado Cove, close to Big Sur in California. When her mother and Nate LLC start fighting all the time, Bailey, being the ‘Artful Dodger’ she is, decides to move to the west coast and live with her dad.
My plane landed half an hour ago, but I’m taking the circuitous route to what I hope is the backside of baggage claim, where my dad is supposed to pick me up. The key to avoiding uncomfortable situations is a preemptive strike: make sure you see them first. And before you accuse me of being a coward, think again. It’s not easy being this screwed up. It takes planning and sharp reflexes. A devious mind.
There is obviously something in Bailey’s past which caused significant trauma for her and may have led to the demise of her parents’ marriage but it takes a fair while until the whole picture becomes clear. But that something is closely tied to Bailey’s penchant to evasion.
Bailey is a film buff and particularly enamoured with classic films. She’s been participating in the Lumiere Film Fanatics Community as “Mink” (her dad’s nickname for her) and regularly messaging “Alex”. Although they both carefully do not share a lot of personal information, over the months, they have become friends. Alex happens to live in Coronado Cove. And, he’s invited her to the Coronado Cove Annual Film Festival to see North by Northwest.
Bailey has a huge crush on Alex but because she’s the Artful Dodger, she has no intention of telling him she’s in town. No, her plan is to work out his identity from the crumbs of clues Alex has scattered over the course of their private messages and check him out first.
Is Alex short? Tall? Does he chew too loud or have some irritating catchphrase? Does he pick his nose in public? Has he had his arms replaced with bionic tentacles? (Note to self: not a deal breaker.)
It is (obviously) important for Bailey to check Alex out stealthily first to see if she event wants to meet him in person. He might be wonderful but he might be awful too. But she really hopes he’s wonderful.
Bailey doesn’t tell Alex she’s in California and hasn’t committed to North by Northwest. In fact, Alex thinks Bailey is still in New Jersey as it had never seemed relevant to tell him she’d moved to Washington DC.
Bailey’s dad is lovely. He’s happy and in a budding new relationship of his own and he’s delighted to see his daughter. He’s a great dad; involved and engaged, and they get along very well. Pete Rydell surprises Bailey with what turns out to be a vintage Vespa, complete with leopard print seat and matching helmet. But he says she has to get a summer job to pay for her cell phone and petrol for the scooter. As a CPA, he happens to have a client to hires summer staff and so Bailey begins work at the Cavern Palace, a quirky museum (of sorts) full of memorabilia, real and fake.
And there, Bailey meets Porter Roth. Porter is 18 and very good looking. He has a lot of scarring on one arm so there’s clearly a story there. He works security full time at Palace over the summer and on weekends when school is in. Both Bailey and Porter will do their senior year at Brightsea High School after the summer is over.
Bailey also meets Grace Achebe at the Palace and the pair become fast friends. Their story is told in the book also and it is an important part of the narrative.
Porter is the grandson of Pennywise Roth, a world famous surfer and local hero. Porter’s dad, Xander was also a pro-surfer until he was seriously injured three years earlier. Porter and Lana (his younger sister) are both surfers too and extremely talented, but Porter hasn’t surfed much lately. Lana however is about to commence the women’s pro tour even though she’s only 16.
Porter’s and Bailey’s relationship isn’t what one would call love at first sight. Quite the opposite actually. But soon enough they become friends and over time, more.
The book contains private messages from the Lumiere Film Fanatics message boards between Alex and Mink; as Bailey’s relationship with Porter deepens and grows, those messages tail off.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out where the story is going but I won’t spoil it here other than to say that there is no love triangle so those readers who avoid them at all costs are quite safe. However, as is the case with any good romance, the delight is in the journey even if the destination is not a surprise. And the journey here is an absolute delight.
Both Bailey and Porter have heavy things to deal with and they are handled with a deft touch, which doesn’t slide into melodrama or stereotype.
I appreciated the representation in the book as well. Grace’s father is from Nigeria but she grew up in Britain, Porter’s mother is from Hawaii and has Polynesian and Chinese heritage, and references to those cultures are peppered throughout the story. It felt a bit more like real life than having all white people all the time.
The story is told from Bailey’s first person POV and the narrative has a youthful charm befitting her age. The story flows well, with dollops of humour and plenty of “awww” moments. Porter is pretty special – older than his years in many ways. The reader finds out why fairly early on but there are other pieces to put together over the course of the story.
The way it comes together is sweet and lovely for the most part. It was only in the last 20 or so pages I thought the conceit of the story was dragged out just a little too long and the book lost some of its momentum.
Even so, Alex, Approximately was a fabulous read and highly recommended. Grade: B+