I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Don't Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche
Also by this author: Five Summers
Published by Penguin on September 1st 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Family, Alternative Family, Social Issues, Homelessness & Poverty, Prejudice & Racism
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From the author of Like No Other, the novel Entertainment Weekly calls "One of the most poignant and star-crossed love stories since The Fault in Our Stars": What if the last hope to save your family is the person who broke it up to begin with? Michelle and her little siblings Cass and Denny are African-American and living on the poverty line in urban Baltimore, struggling to keep it together with their mom in jail and only Michelle’s part-time job at the Taco Bell to sustain them. Leah and her stepbrother Tim are white and middle class from suburban Maryland, with few worries beyond winning lacrosse games and getting college applications in on time. Michelle and Leah only have one thing in common: Buck Devereaux, the biological father who abandoned them when they were little. After news trickles back to them that Buck is dying, they make the uneasy decision to drive across country to his hospice in California. Leah hopes for closure; Michelle just wants to give him a piece of her mind. Five people in a failing, old station wagon, living off free samples at food courts across America, and the most pressing question on Michelle’s mind is: Who will break down first--herself or the car? All the signs tell her they won’t make it. But Michelle has heard that her whole life, and it’s never stopped her before.... Una LaMarche triumphs once again with this rare and compassionate look at how racial and social privilege affects one family in crisis in both subtle and astonishing ways.From the Hardcover edition.
I love when young adult contemporary books have characters who have bigger problems then where they are going for their international senior trip or prom. I loved it when contemporary books feel grounded in a reality that I can somewhat relate to a little bit. Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche is one of those sorts of young adult books. It is a road trip book that feels anything but typical. It is not one of those light, throwaway sort of reads that you read on your beach towel and forget about later. Rather, LaMarche’s book is a smart read that explores deeper themes like family, race, and privilege.
Main character Michelle is just barely holding it together. When Don’t Fail Me Now opens, Michelle is sitting at the police station with her sister Cass and her brother Denny. They are waiting for their aunt to come pick them up because their mom has just been arrested for being caught doing heroin in a bathroom. CPS shows up. Michelle knows that she can’t let her family get separated or taken away. Eventually the aunt shows up and the three stay at her small apartment while the aunt tries to charge Michelle an exorbitant amount for rent. You see, Michelle works part time at Taco Bell to fuel her family car, Goldie, and to help cover the family essentials. Anyways, Michelle is very stressed out and so, one day she is at work and this very blonde, very white guy shows up at her register. He tells Michelle that Buck, her father, is dying and that he has something for her. The white guy is Tim and he is the stepbrother to Michelle’s half sister, Leah, who Michelle had never met prior to now. So, anyways, the premise of this book is a road trip from Baltimore to California in the beat up old station wagon, Goldie which is pretty much surviving on a wish and a prayer. The money is tight and the teens must get by on free samples and handouts.
Michelle is the true definition of a fighter. She does not give up even though the odds are completely stacked against her. She’s such a strong character, but she is like that because she has to be in order to survive. There’s still things she is vulnerable about like her family and she has a bit of a fear about the future. She doesn’t want to end up as middle management for a fast food place but that seems like her only option. College isn’t even a given for her, because if she has to keep taking care of her siblings every time her mom gets arrested, well, survival is number one on her mind. I liked that. There’s a gritty realism to Michelle that makes her so compelling.
There is a romance in Don’t Fail Me Now. I actually felt like the romance was probably the weakest point of the book. Tim and Michelle start to fall for each other while on the road trip. They do not have a ton in common, but both have pretty good characteristics and are genuinely people. However, I did not quite buy the romance. It just didn’t seem fleshed out and kind of took away from the whole family story. Really, this book is about more than a road trip to say goodbye to a dying man, it’s about becoming a family and Leah and Michelle and Cass all bonding with each other.
LaMarche does a superb job addressing privilege and class and race in Don’t Fail Me Now. Michelle is biracial as are Cass and Denny. Leah and Tim are both white and come from a privileged background. Michelle thinks differently than Leah and Tim. She doesn’t take anything for granted. She’s tangled with the legal system and CPS. Her life is not filled with people who just want to help her. There are assumptions that are made about Michelle because of her race by other ignorant minor characters in the book. I love this. I love that we get to walk a mile in Michelle’s shoes. I love that this book acknowledges that privilege does exist. I love that it acknowledges that society is not perfect and fair. It’s so refreshing to read about a character who has actual real struggles.
I’ve only read one other book by LaMarche, Five Summers, which was okay. I am putting that out there because if I had judged this book based upon my feelings about Five Summers, I would have missed out on an excellent read. Don’t Fail Me Now is an absolutely daring book. I loved it.