This is one of those books that I wish had come out a decade ago, because I could really have used it back then. I saw a lot myself and the people I knew in high school in this book, and I suspect it will resonate with a number of teenagers I know today. Don’t get scared off by the beginning, which is sort of weird and irritating – the rest of the book is great.
Cass’s best friend Julia dies in a car accident, and A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend follows Cass and her friends as they attempt to pick up the pieces, move on, and memorialize Julia as best they can. Cass memorializes her dead best friend in two ways: she takes the trip out west that she and Julia had planned, and she participates in the production of the musical Julia had been working on before her death. The road trip takes place during summer break, and the play is staged early on in the school year. The novel skips back and forth between the two stories, which normally bothers me, but here, the stories just work better this way.
The great thing is that both stories are equally engaging. I love road trip novels, and I really love Route 66, so I enjoyed the chapters about Cass’s struggle to bike from Chicago to Los Angeles. Watching Cass return to the “real world” and attempt to navigate her changed relationships with Julia’s friends – and enemies – is equally compelling. Horner’s portrayal of this gang of grieving teenagers rings true for me – I know plenty of kids, especially theatre kids, who watch a lot of obscure horror movies and would do anything for their friends.
I never got any real sense of what Julia was like – for all that the novel happens because of her death, we don’t know very much about her life. She liked theatre, was really into her boyfriend, was great at writing music…that’s about all we know. And that’s okay. This book is so not about Julia, and I like that. Instead, we get a smart, sympathetic portrait of smart, sympathetic Cass as she works through her grief by making mistakes, getting in trouble, and maybe even falling in love.