When these books originally crossed my desk I skipped both of them. Emmy & Oliver had a heart on the cover and sappy sounding plot so I slapped a romance genre label and sent it out into the world. Mosquitoland piqued my interest but I just never got around to picking it up and you can only let a book sit on your desk so long before the guilt sets in. Plus, it is my natural luck that I would get assigned two books I didn’t read out of all the books I finished this year (thanks, Brandi). However, both of these novels turned out to be wonderful and now I think I may have to peel off that romance sticker off Emmy & Oliver.
Emmy & Oliver by Robin Benway
Like I said, heart fingerprints on the cover, the tagline “A novel of love – lost and found”, and the premise of two best friends reunited after ten years apart: I judged this book by its cover so hard. The story is so much more complex and heartfelt than first appearances to the point that I think the cover does it disservice. Emmy & Oliver is the story of reunited friends that were separated after Oliver’s father kidnapped him but it doesn’t stop with them. Benway weaves together all the characters touched by the tragedy and Oliver’s return from his mother that has begun a new family to Emmy’s parents that can’t seem to trust their daughter when it comes to him. As they hash out their friendship and complicate it with love the characters reveal themselves as complex and relatable.
While there is definitely a romantic element to the story it is far from a romance and is more concerned with exploring the relationship developments between the characters. Unfortunately, that is also where Emmy & Oliver’s faults lie. If this book was just about Oliver, or at least told from his perspective it would’ve been a homerun. I found myself uninterested in Emmy at times and wishing the story would get back to Oliver. Emmy & Oliver was a fascinating read with minimal missteps and a lot of heart (even if not always the romantic type).
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Mim is a newly minted teen runaway. After overhearing her father and stepmother discussing her mother’s illness Mim becomes convinced that her parents are trying to keep her from her mother. So she does the only reasonable thing and steals the emergency fund and hops a bus back to Ohio to find her mother. Thus begins a classic road trip novel. Mim meets a bevy of characters ranging from weird and pervy to weird and beautiful and takes up with a couple after the bus crashes. As the road trip continues we get backstory about Mim and her family revealing her mother’s illness to be mental and the realization that Mim may suffer from the same affliction.
The issue of mental illness is handled respectfully but there are a two problematic moments in the novel: referring to the character with Downs syndrome as “their pet” and putting on lipstick “war paint” to make herself feel stronger which this incident of cultural appropriation is okay because, wait for it, she’s part Cherokee. Perhaps the greatest sin in this novel was that I could tell the author was trying to create a John Green-esqe novel complete with teens that wax philosophically like 40 year old professors.
And the winner is…
Both books were wonderful and absolutely deserve to be considered for best books in 2015. Both books had minor flaws, but Emmy & Oliver had the more egregious flaw in my eyes. Had the book been mainly about Oliver or had him as the narrator this would have been my favorite to win the tournament. Mosquitoland gets the slight edge and will move on to the next round.
WINNER: MOSQUITOLAND BY DAVID ARNOLD
Reviewed by Joe Marcantonio, Plainfield Public Library