Laura Lascarso‘s debut novel, Counting Backwards, is the kind of book that reminds you that lots of writing talent is sitting off in the wings, waiting to be discovered. Lascarso’s prose is suitably succinct for a young adult novel, the dialogue is real, and the plot unfolds smoothly and seamlessly as Lascarso guides Taylor, the lead character, toward an emotional climax that is all but predictable. While some teens might not like the way her story ends, the reflective ones will be provoked, and parents will likely nod their heads at the truth of Taylor’s journey.
Taylor is an admirably complex character, estranged from her father, who simply doesn’t know how to communicate with his headstrong daughter. Her mother is a drug addict and alcoholic, spending days on binges and leaving her daughter to pick up the pieces. And Taylor picks them up, putting the puzzle back to together all too many times. Taylor is naturally frustrated with her mother’s irresponsibility, and her emotional confusion of love with dependence inevitably leads to acting out and the adoption of false sense of emotional strength.
Her final act is stealing a car, landing her in Sunny Meadows, a detention facility for chronic juvenile offenders that will ensure Taylor gets the psychiatric help she needs. Thus, she’s thrown in with a bunch of “crazies,” many of whom aren’t really that crazy. Indeed, the entire world in which Taylor is thrown is eminently rational, even if misunderstood by the adults. Actually, their world is not so much misunderstood, as a practical recognition that adults have limited influence over the choices these teens make. The facility, its rules, regulations, and staff, are mainly there to contain the worst behavior, hoping the kids under their nominal control will eventually mature to the point they will become open to the help the adults can provide (or at least recognize adapting to the adult world’s structure is crucial to their survival).
Lascarso’s book does an excellent job of integrating plot, setting, and character to develop a quick, smooth read. The setting of a psychiatric juvenile prison creates just the right tension between the ordered world adults expect their children to live within and the chaotic, dynamic emotional roller coaster world teenagers in fact navigate. Taylor’s drive to escape–both physically and emotionally–provides the energy that keeps the story moving, believably setting up plot point after plot point. Her journey from rebellious hope to emotional despair to a newly gained sense of mature, if tentative hope is believable and all too real for many teenage girls. Taylor’s relationships with friends, allies, and enemies are well developed, and the shifting nature of teenage allegiances gives Lascarso the whole clothe she needs to give major and minor characters complexity and their own arcs. But it’s the combination of all three–setting, plot, and character–that give Taylor’s story its breadth, layers and satisfaction for readers.
All-in-all, Laura Lascarso weaves a smoothly written, well drawn portrait of a young woman sorting through her own identity with a cast of characters that will keep readers engaged and turning pages well past dinner or their own time for lights out. This debut novel is a great entrance for a talented writer in the young adult genre.
For additional thoughts on how Lascarso effectively portrays bullying and violence, see my analysis over at blog.defensivewarrior.com.
A review by young adult author M.R. Street for the Tallahassee Democrat can be found here.