Book Review: Althea & Oliver, by Cristina Moracho

When I’m looking for a book that isn’t on everybody’s radar, I turn to one of my favorite bookish websites – When I want to move away from the award winners or the latest big novel by such-and-such notorious author, I can always count on BookRiot to provide me with plenty of options. My most recent pick, Althea & Oliver, was clearly chosen by BookRiot reviewers as a 2014 Young Adult sleeper hit. Here’s why:

  1. A love letter to the 1990s: Moracho defines her 1990s scene through zines, DIY mixtapes, basement punk shows, and most importantly, freedom. Some might argue that Althea and Oliver’s freedom to visit each others houses or remain unaccounted for hours is unbelievable. It’s not. It’s what life was like before the ubiquitous use of cell phones (or even pagers)! The realistic depiction of communication demonstrates the advantages – freedom from parental oversight – and disadvantages – mixed and missed messages, as well as geographic obstacles.
  2. Boy-Girl best friend story in the least conventional way possible: It’s a tale as old as…well, it’s old. Boy and girl are lifelong best friends until the teenage years come ’round and the emotions get mixed up. The majority of YA Boy-Girl best friend stories end happily, with the friends becoming a happy romantic couple. Sometimes, one best friend has more feels than the other and there is pain and heartbreak. But rarely does an author depict the confusing and murky in-between. Sure, we know from the alternating narrative that Althea has Oliver on her mind more often. But, Oliver is certainly not firmly planted in platonic soil.
  3. Somebody is sick, but it isn’t what you expect: Oliver sleeps like the dead, almost. About halfway through the book Moracho lets the reader know what illness is causing Oliver’s coma-like sleep episodes, but for awhile all we know is that Oliver’s first episode occurred the day after Althea realized she could no longer ignore the very obvious shift in her affection towards Oliver. The complications caused by Oliver’s illness is an entirely different bag of those presented in The Fault In Our Stars. Not remotely similar. Especially because, A. Oliver and Althea do not grow closer during this “trying time” and, B. Oliver does not act sick, nor is he treated like he is sick when he is episode-free.
  4. Role reversals, big time: This has to be vague lest spoilers, but the friendship-ruining event Althea allows to happen (or orchestrates, depending on your interpretation) is not atypical or unexpected. However, Althea’s role in the event is…not a gender norm. Not much else can be said because spoilers, but hopefully I’m not the only one who appreciates Moracho’s effort to flip a BIG ISSUE upside down and backwards.
  5. Tribute to the south, and the north: Set in both North Carolina AND New York City? In the 1990s? Moracho waxes all kinds of nostalgia for older readers and hopefully nostalgia-envy for younger.
  6. Layers and layers and layers: Moracho leans more towards the Rainbow Rowells and Stephen Chboskys rather than the John Greens in the “complex character” department. Green’s characters always seem to be too consciously aware of their complexities (in an unrealistic, adult-y way). Moracho writes characters who know they are messed up, but are dealing with that conscious awareness in a fashion that the reader can recognize. Althea knows she is an angry, competitive person who is overly-reliant on Oliver, but she never has a sudden, climactic moment of clarity. Althea’s circumstances (and choices) force her to face her issues piecemeal – sometimes she answers destructively, and sometimes she makes better decisions.

If you are interested in reading Althea & Oliver, by Cristina Moracho, please stop by Calarco to check out a library kindle.

Read if you like: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the 1990s, punk shows, imagining life without cell phones, unconventional endings

Don’t read if you like: neat endings, cookie-cutter depictions of teenagers, clean language

-Signing off, Jenny Barrows (who wishes she saved more of her mixtapes and mix-CDs)

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