One of the Year's Best: Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller
My copy of Trish Doller’s second novel, Where the Stars Still Shine, arrived last week and as I’m looking at it’s pretty, oh-so-shiny cover sitting on my desk, I’m still stuck when trying to talk about why it’s such a special book.
When I read Trish’s debut novel, Something Like Normal, I had to plug my Kindle in to finish the last ten percent or so because my battery was dead and it was 2:00 a.m. and I just couldn't fathom stopping.
The exact same thing—right down to the dead Kindle battery—happened when I read her second novel, Where the Stars Still Shine.
Like Something Like Normal, and perhaps even more so, Where the Stars Still Shine captures authentic emotion in a character-driven novel in a way that’s simply real.
Stars is told from the first person point-of-view of Callie, 17 and on the run for more than a decade with the mother who kidnapped her. She’s never attended school, never had a place to call home in any sort of permanent way, never had anything she could count on day in and day out. Then, the law finally catches up with her mother, and Callie finds herself thrust into the life she would have had if she’d never been taken from her Greek-American family in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
In a blur, Callie finds herself living with her father, stepmother and half-siblings, socializing with cousins and grandparents she can't quite remember and doesn't quite fit with. She has to learn how to be part of a family and a community, and how to forge authentic, meaningful relationships.
There's so much to like in this beautifully-written novel, and I've been trying to collect my notes on Where the Stars Still Shine into some sort of cohesive post for this blog, and I'm still struggling to articulate exactly why this novel shone so brightly for me.
[Very mild spoilers ahoy!]
"I’ve never been in love before, but this moment is bittersweet and tender and terrible and perfect. Surely this must be it."
One of the major elements that distinguished Stars for me is the arc of Callie's relationship with Alex, an older boy who's sponge diver in Tarpon Springs. I know romance readers have been disappointed by this storyline (the ending is hopeful, but left untied in a way that's appropriate for these characters), but Callie's character growth via her relationship Alex, what she learns about herself and what a relationship with a boy can be, is moving and—here's the word again—real.
Alex and Callie are three years apart in age, and their relationship starts as a casual hookup, with Callie maintaining an emotional distance and simply seeking a physical connection with Alex. I loved that Alex and Callie's relationship started out as a physical one, because that happens, and it's not necessarily a bad thing but it usually is framed as such in YA fiction. (The same could be said of the older guy archetype in teen fiction as well.)
“Callie.” Reality snaps into focus as Alex grabs my shoulders. “What the hell is going on?”
I blink once. Twice. My heart rate is crazy fast and I touch his face to make sure he’s real. “It was only a nightmare.”
“Only?” He brushes his fingers along my cheek and they come away wet. “You were crying in your sleep.”
“It was pretty terrible.” I dry my eyes on the collar of my shirt.
“Do you, um—do you want to talk about it?”
“No.” My skin feels as if ants are marching beneath the surface. I don’t want to think about the dream, let alone share it. Not even with him. Especially not him.
“You probably think I’m the weirdest girl you’ve ever met.”
“I think . . . ” He rests his chin on top of my head and there’s a kind of security in the hollow of his neck. “ . . . that we all have stories we don’t tell. If you want to share it, you will. Or, you won’t.”
ThIs is what Callie and Alex needed at that point in their lives, especially Callie, who's been abused and doesn't know what real trust can be like. Alex is older and has the experience to show her that it can be different. This stands in contrast to Callie's disastrous attempts to be a "normal" teen by dating nice high school boy Connor, who simply doesn't have maturity to handle Callie and needs a more traditional high school dating relationship that Callie cannot offer.
"The scene between us plays on a continuous loop in my head, the humiliation catching flame on my face over and over until I’m scorched. I don’t understand what happened, why Connor didn’t want me. And I don’t understand why I still feel every bit as worthless as I felt after Danny, after Matt. After Frank."
[End mild spoilers.]
Because Callie's character is allowed to be the grown-up-too-soon teen character she is in this aspect of her new life, Callie's struggle with fitting into the warm, closely-knit family is even more heart-wrenching.
People care where she goes, about what she eats, how late she comes home. Figuring out how to negotiate that is hard, and in that way Callie seems so young, and it's what makes Where the Stars Still Shine hit the YA vibe so wonderfully. With its intense content, I'm sure this novel will be embraced by fans of the "new adult" thing (and I understand why), but it's very much a coming-of-age story and Callie's relationship with her family illustrates that wonderfully.
This includes the way Callie's loyalties are divided between her new life and her mother, whom she loves despite that she's destructive and is, well, a criminal. Thematically, Stars tackles the tangled notions of forgiveness and acceptance in all of the relationships Callie negotiates, but none are as tough as her reconciling her new life in Tarpon Springs with her years on the run with her mother and the niggling tug of guilt of her mother being in jail for Callie's kidnapping.
I'm often critical of too tidy or easy of resolution to parent-child relationships in young adult novels; for me, these stories are often too obviously from an adult perspective, with parents receiving unearned, rushed forgiveness. That is absolutely not the case for Where the Stars Still Shine. It's sticky, complicated and—once again—real.
In case it's not obvious, I loved Where the Stars Still Shine. Callie's story left me both hopeful and teary in the best of ways. I hope you love it too.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the author.