Friday, September 3, 2021

"P.R." by Danielle Dassler--Fiction Review

Today obscurists, we’re punks, not goths—that’s important. In any case, the book today is “P.R.” by Danielle Dassler, and right up front, I was delighted that this coming-of-age story blasted my expectations.

Danielle Dassler

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

“P.R.” broke my heart more than once—I know—a strange thing to say in the section about what I loved about this book. But here is why I list this as a good thing—because I’m profoundly odd, I love a good tragedy, and without getting to the spoiler-ly part of this review yet, there is a lot of stuff in this coming-of-age novel, which is tragic.

I love how Dassler leans into all the manic ups and downs of teenage life, especially where it concerns young people who exist out on the fringe. “P.R.” is really a story colored by strong emotions that are often contradictory—like joy, rage, insecurity, confidence, love, and hate. It’s all the good and bad fused together. 

In situation, if not in character, our main character, Andrea, felt at times like a modern-day punk rock “Anne of Green Gables,” if Anne were a touch more cynical and frankly a bit more interesting. Andrea’s living situation is equally odd, though, first living with her sort-of boyfriend, then with her rich friend Roxanne after he has to leave town. When Andrea is coerced into running track, and she soon discovers a passion for it, it was really satisfying to watch how she grew as a person. As the story progresses, she becomes more assertive in what she wants and isn’t just shunted along by what her social circle demands. 

The final thing that I loved about this book is that Dassler doesn’t let up on the reality of the world in which her characters live. It can be wonderful and exciting, but life is no fairy tale, and for a lot of young people who come from broken homes, consequences are real, harsh, and often permanent.

What I don’t love about this book:

The mentor characters, the track coach, and Ms. Beasley compete with each other for time in the spotlight with Andrea, so they’re just concerned adult characters—but not developed into full three-dimensional people. This runs on to some of the other minor characters, too, where they feel samey and stock. The boys in the band could all be one person in my mind. 

Dassler infuses so much excellent character voice and individuality into her protagonist and the major supporting characters that the contrast with the minor cast is stark. To play devil’s advocate against my own point, though, this could be a stylistic thing because teenagers are naturally self-absorbed, so the further away from themselves and their favorites, people do become pretty samey. It’s a lack of attention rather than reality.

Also, nobody’s mom is doing a particularly good job in this story—the parent characters themselves are all pretty poor, from dads who range from neglectful to outright hostile. Still, the moms don’t ever seem to do anything right. Even Crunchy Matt’s mom, who appears to be the most successful of the bunch when we meet her, feels overbearing.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We begin with Andrea in trouble for cutting class and smoking, sitting outside the guidance counselor’s office waiting to hear the damage. During the session, talk of expulsion is brought up, but the counselor recommends against it—noting that Andrea’s heavy boots made it quite a feat for her to outrun campus security. So Andrea’s “punishment” is more creative, she’s to join the track team, which has minimum grade requirements to be on, so Andrea has to bring up her grades too.

After, Andrea meets up with Dereck, her kind-of boyfriend she’s currently living with—him, his sister, and niece. They have this unique living arrangement because Andrea’s home life with her mother and a series of abusive stepfathers, plus drugs, made it untenable. Her life with Dereck and his broken little family is only marginally better, though. Dereck’s sister is a single mother whose boyfriend is a violent nut-job. They don’t have parental support because their father is in jail, and their mother died of cancer. It implodes when the boyfriend decides to go off crazier than usual and force his way into the apartment, fists flying. Andrea has to flee with Dereck’s niece to protect her from the fallout.

When the dust settles after that episode of domestic violence—Dereck decides to take a job in his uncle’s garage as a mechanic and move his sister and niece away from the crazy boyfriend. He insists that Andrea stays though to finish her high school education. Crushed, Andrea ends up staying with her very wealthy friend Roxanne and gets pushed into inheriting Dereck’s singing responsibilities with his band, who he’s also leaving behind. Andrea is about as enthusiastic about it as she was when forced to join the track team.

During her first day of training for track, it turns out Andrea has some natural aptitude for it, and the other runners, after a bit of initial static, even give Andrea her nickname. Thus she is dubbed P.R. It’s short for punk rock because it’s crucial—to her—that everyone knows she isn’t a goth kid. She’s punk. They, all being teenagers, subtly mock her for it by assigning her that particular nickname, which is consistent because all the nicknames are sort of like that.           

As the months go by, Andrea becomes much closer with Roxanne, who becomes more like an odd mix of an elder sister/parental figure to Andrea—despite being just peers and best friends. Still, it’s Roxanne who manages Andrea’s life, gives her guidance, sees to her basic needs, and emotional support. Roxanne is even dubious—and it sadly turns out rightly so—when Andrea’s mother makes a reappearance in her life, swearing this time she’s going to get clean.

Meanwhile, Andrea improves her grades via a tutor who has a crush on her that goes disastrously wrong. She also improves as a singer, which she still doesn’t really want to do because it’s a hassle. Finally, and least expected, Andrea becomes truly passionate about track and running. She even becomes good friends with her teammates against her initial resistance and inclinations. Roxanne is again the force behind her encouraging her to open up to them.

Eventually, though, a huge conflict comes up. Andrea has made the times necessary to go to a big track event, which could lead to maybe a future scholarship to a good college, but it’s at the same time as a band performance she agreed to do. She seriously considers ditching her aspirations to do the band gig, but Roxanne refuses to let her give up on herself like that and decides that she will fill in on vocals for the band. Andrea’s bandmates’ initial reaction is less than encouraging—actually, it’s downright nasty, but eventually, Roxanne forces everyone to compromise, kiss, and makeup, saving the day once again.

Andrea goes to her event, meets real stiff competition for the first time, but makes excellent personal times. Roxanne and the boys perform, which goes way better than expected, while Andrea and her runner friends watch the show via smartphone on the way home from the meet. After the show, Andrea intends to go to the party celebrating the performance, but there is traffic on the way back, and they don’t get home until late. When she finally gets to the house, it’s clear from all the emergency vehicles that something has gone terribly wrong, and Andrea discovers that Roxanne died.

Roxanne hadn’t been eating the night of the show. She’d been drinking and took Xanax to calm her nerves—the combination proved fatal. Andrea blamed herself, and her world comes crashing down around her again. Roxanne’s funeral is beyond painful, but at the end of it, Dereck shows up on his motorcycle to take her home—wherever that might be.


There is a rising and falling symmetry to this story that I loved that I couldn’t really talk about in the non-spoiler section of this review. Andrea rides with Dereck on his motorcycle through the town early in the story, and then it’s repeated at the end. The story’s main action starts with Andrea’s cobbled together family unit imploding, and it does so again with Roxanne’s death. Dassler even uses a phrase about Andrea and Roxanne, combining their broken pieces to create a whole person, and at the end repeats that beat, but now with Dereck. I’d say the story describes a parabola, but, actually, it’s more like a plateau because when the bad shit happens, it’s like falling off a cliff.

Dassler’s skill with getting flawed people to worm their way into your heart is tremendous. By the end of this novel, I was fully invested in these people’s lives, wanting the best for them and feeling their pain when life doesn’t work out or ends tragically short in Roxanne’s case. For context, I finished this book on a Friday night, stayed awake an hour later than I normally would have, thinking about what just happened—then woke up the following day and was exactly in the same headspace. That seldom happens to me.

The sales copy of this book even warns you that it will be a gut punch and I—clearly too blase—thought we’ll see. Well, I was delighted to find out I was wrong, and “P.R.” exceeded my expectations. I happen to like being wrong because it just means there is more to know—and speaking of thwarted expectations, this wasn’t the only time Dassler managed to fool me. I assumed the tear-jerk at the end would be Andrea’s mom would be dead. I would have so traded Andrea’s mom for Roxanne! Maybe, that’s awful of me, all human life having value and whatnot, but from a purely reactionary part of my soul, it was the first thought that occurred to me, ugly as it may be. The other time was when Andrea was so hostile toward Crunchy Matt, my thought was, “be easy; he is just trying to help you out.” Then later, I had to admit, when he was bashing her friends, “nope, I was wrong, this dude’s a creep.” Thankfully, Andrea’s instincts were better than mine. 

Parting thoughts:

Roxanne’s death got to me pretty hard in this book. When I was eighteen, a friend of mine, also eighteen, died tragically young. I won’t misrepresent the situation here though, we were not nearly as close as Andrea and Roxanne. 

We were partners who worked together in an architectural drafting class and then in an applied engineering class in school. There we built bridges out of uncooked spaghetti, tennis ball catapults, and even a CO2 rocket car. It’s impossible to work together so well for so long and to not respect each other. We were even friends, similar to how Andrea was to the runner girl Ponytail—in that we came from very different social circles. He even got me weirdly invested in the “Castlevania” video games of all things for a while.

But that moment—standing at the casket—and looking at the face of your friend is pretty much precisely how Dassler puts it in this book. It’s them, and it’s not them, at the same time. I’ve since been to many more funerals over the years, most much older people, but sadly some too young. It’s always the same at that moment, though. The face is never right.

When a young person has died, I can’t help but think of all the firsts they won’t get to have. In my friend’s case, I can’t help but imagine that there was a college he would have gone to, new friends he would have made that would have meant the world to him and he to them. Now they as much as he will never know each other. He might have had a great career ahead of him, a family, a home, out there somewhere—where he will never get to be and live.

That’s what death is to me. It’s the end of possibility, the end of potential. The younger it comes, the greater the tragedy because it isn’t just the profound loss to the people who knew that person, but to all those who would have known them.

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