H LOOK IT’S MY NEW FAVOURITE BOOK. And it’s the only contemporary on my favourite books list. You know how sometimes you read a book at exactly the right time? That was this book for me. Also, shoutout to the wonderful Sarah @WrittenWordWorlds, who convinced me to read this book in her review. Basically, this story nails the uncertainty inherent in a new stage of life, and just captures the rhythm of being a teenager perfectly.
Seventeen-year-old Adelaide is sick of being expected to succeed on other people’s terms. She knows she just has to stick it out at school for one more year and then she’ll be free. Instead, she runs away from her fancy boarding school back to her sleepy hometown to read and dream.
But there are no free rides. When Addie’s grandad gets her a job at the local historical society, she soon finds out that it’s dusty and dull, just like her new life. Things change when she starts hanging out with Jarrod, a boy who seems full of possibilities. But it turns out he’s as stuck as she is. And Addie realises that when you want something in life, you’ve actually got to do something about it.
A heartfelt tale about love, friendship and finding your own way. (blurb from goodreads)
So right now I’m at a stage in my life where I’ve finished school (though to be fair I graduated with pretty good grades first) and I’m heading to university….but that also involves moving country. And having horrifying amounts of free time. And it just feels like a big change and I want to be calm but at the same time I don’t know where I belong and where I’m heading and I feel a lot of uncertainty. On the surface, I’m not that similar to Addie. She’s Australian, I’m Indian-New Zealandish. She left school, I finished before I left. I’m pretty certain that I want to go to university…and she is too, but it’s going to take a while for her to reach that stage. But the lovely thing about characters as well written as she is is that you don’t need to look the same to share something. As I review this book I’m going to talk about all the ways that I felt that it really fit with who I am right now.
One of the big ideas in Untidy Towns is belonging, and all its layers: to a place, with other people, within your family. Addie has been away from her place and her family, and one of the reasons she runs away is that she never really belongs in the city. But belonging takes time and energy. Addie knows she belongs with her family, and she responds to that by spending time with her (adorable) little sister (and reminded me to enjoy my younger sister more); reading her mother’s book recommendations (sharing books with your mother is so fun! I need to do it more!); and accepting a position at her local historical society. Being at the society teaches her more about her town and gives her a reason to interact with people she wouldn’t have seen otherwise; for example, there’s this sweet scene where she visits an old man and he teaches her to make scones and they talk about the past. And then there’s the people aspect of belonging. Addie has largely let her friendships slide, so she has to find a space for herself there too, which is hard and painful. I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships lately–what with leaving school and moving to a place where I don’t know very many people, it’s something I’ve worried about, so watching Addie do it was very reassuring. I also volunteered for a month in my local historical centre (and with any luck I’ll do some more things with them too) which had a lot of similarities to Addie’s–dusty wooden shelves, few visitors, lots of help in digitisation and websites needed, all sorts of fascinating bits of history, a colonial skew. In general, the idea that belonging is something you need to fight for really resonated with me.
The word ‘untidy’ is in the title of this book, and O’Donnell incorporates the messy bits of life into her story in a way that really resonated with me. Addie does the dishes. She learns to cook. She feels useless. She reads for hours. She ignores people. She does things she knows that she will regret. She isn’t as productive as she wants to be, and, instead, questions the notion of productivity and its pervasion in society (it me). She goes camping and it rains and the tent drips. She gets stung by the electric fence (again, me. But it’s all me. That’s what made this book so perfect.). She rides her bike places, and doesn’t always say the right thing, and has regrets and, most of all, isn’t entirely sure what she needs to do to be happy. These untidy spaces give the narrative–and, more importantly, the characters–breath, making the book exquisitely alive.
I think it would be easy to call this book slow. But it’s not the sort of book which rests heavily on the tight corners of a plot. Instead, O’Donnell has created an incredibly expansive world within the nuanced relationships of her characters. Again and again, we are reminded that Addie doesn’t know what she wants. This is a simple enough statement, but somewhat revolutionary in a YA book. In YA books, especially American ones, when a character isn’t driven towards a very specific goal (e.g. prestigious degree at prestigious university), then the resolution of the book is when they find a goal. This isn’t the case in Untidy Towns. Instead, Addie learns by the end of the story to be okay with the uncertainty of what she wants, and the certainty that it will change, and she will too. I finished this book with the absolute knowledge that Addie would not be the same person in the future, and she would want different things in the future, but that she had the confidence in herself and others to deal with whatever came. That’s unusual in a YA book, but such a powerful, useful narrative. My life isn’t a YA book. I’m doing the best I can with how well I know myself and how well I know the world, but I don’t know if the choices I’m making now are going to be the right choices for my future self and future world; but here I am, like Addie, acknowledging that (and reading lots of books in the meantime.) In Untidy Towns, the future deserves thought and reflection, but it’s informed by knowledge of history, and knowledge that there’s a lot to what is important beyond grades.
Above all, Untidy Towns is a book about possibility within and without of yourself. It renders life in a beautiful way, realistic, bright and messy and glorious. It resonated with me in a thousand ways; made me cry four times; filled me with hope and joy and certainty in my own uncertainty. Belonging is something you have to fight for, but I found it in this book.
What is a book that you felt like really understood you? Have you ever done something as wild as running away from school? let me know in the comments!