British teen Ashleigh Walker has never been a model student and her best friend, Cat, doesn’t help matters. Cat is a bit of a bad girl and easily influences Ashleigh (Ash) at times. The two have no use for school and less than admiration for their teachers. However, in the opening pages of Read Me Like a Book, everything changes for Ash the day English teacher, Miss Murray, steps into the classroom.

At first, Ash tries to remain detached, shunning all desire to pay attention, let alone enjoy learning something new. Then Miss Murray reads a poem by Phillip Larkin (used with permission) and Ash realizes this is a teacher like no other she’s ever experienced. The poem hits Ash where she lives—with parents who don’t seem to be able to get along anymore, creating a tension in her life with which Ashleigh can barely cope. Miss Murray is a woman who draws Ash in against her will, who stimulates her soul, who makes her think, and eventually, makes her feel things she didn’t know she could feel. She also makes Ashleigh want to succeed in her English studies and in school.

The strain in Ash’s life is complicated even more by a boyfriend. Ash finds him attractive at first. However, after a monumentally bad decision, she is forced to realize her relationship with him doesn’t hold the attraction she thought it did, only adding to her troubles. These problems, along with the struggle with her growing feelings for her teacher, make Ash agonize over all aspects of her life and how she will deal with it all.

Told in the first person, from Ash’s point of view, we are privy to this teen’s inner turmoil as she processes each difficulty in her life. In the end, she reveals herself to be a compassionate—and passionate—young woman searching for her place in the world. The question is: will she ever find that place with so much going on in her life?

Ashleigh’s friends, the minor characters who populate her story, bring a refreshing supportive tone to the story. Cat is a character who both loves her best friend and challenges her when she’s acting self-centered and unsympathetic to others. New friend Robyn is a mystery and makes us wonder what role she will ultimately play in Ash’s life. Friend Jason, shy but affable, can relate to Ash’s struggle to come out and offers his own brand of encouragement.

Settings, activities, and some of the jargon are typical and specific to a story based in the United Kingdom; however, none of it is difficult to understand or is off-putting. It actually adds to the story, grounding us in the place and time in which the characters move through these unfolding events.

This coming of age story is told with passion and insight. Kessler highlights a young woman’s craving for recognition, love, and validation to explore her explore her emotionally charged world. Sometimes, these teen stories have such similarities, they can border on boring; this novel is not that. The story moves along, pulling us, drawing us into Ashleigh’s psyche. Her combination of issues and her processing of them thrust us forward in the story and keep us turning pages to the final resolution of each of the problems she faces. It’s easy to feel what she feels and we ache for this young woman. As the story progresses, we are given moments of beautiful, poignant prose allowing us to experience what Ash’s life is like as she struggles through her final year of high school and looks for direction and true love.

 

Read Me Like a Book
By Liz Kessler
Candlewick Press
Paperback, 9780763681319, 293 pp.
June 2016



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