Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: On the Fence by Kasie West

Last year I read three books by Kasie West and was particularly drawn to her characters and the relationships she created between them.  While On the Fence is most similar to The Distance between Us, instead of starting with two main characters from completely disparate worlds, West starts this story with two main characters who are literally next door neighbors and have been friends since childhood.

Charlotte, or Charlie for short, is the youngest in a family with three older brothers, Jerom, Nathan, and Gage.  Their father, a police officer, has raised them as a single dad since their mother died when Charlie was about six and so Charlie has always been just "one of the boys." Braden, the next door neighbor, is as close as a brother, constantly coming over and hanging out with the four of them, at least partially to avoid his drunk jerk of a father.

Charlie's second speeding ticket in a month leads Charlie's dad to lay down the law - get a job to pay for the fine and the increased car insurance - so Charlie finds a job at a small boutique owned by an eccentric woman named Linda. This job requires that she start dressing in something other than sweats and crew-neck t-shirts, her standard "uniform" as "one of the guys", so knowing nothing about "girly" stuff, she simply takes Linda's advice on clothes. Then Linda asks her to be the makeup model for a demonstration of a new makeup line the store will be carrying - and of course, Charlie never wears makeup - so Linda convinces her to try it by offering her part of the profit from the makeup sales.

And then Charlie actually starts hanging out with *gasp* other girls! And discovers they're not totally shallow creatures she has nothing in common with. And maybe she might actually like some of this "girly" stuff.

Along the way, Charlie starts to realize she has strong feelings for Braden that go beyond friendship. Late at night, they'll often meet on either side of the fence that separates their properties to talk. The fence provides a sense of a "different reality" that allows them to open up and talk more freely than if they were face to face.

The ultimate message of the book is a great one: be yourself; if a guy doesn't like you for who you are he's not worth your time; it's okay to be open to new things. Linda says point blank at one point, "we can't let boys define how we feel about ourselves." All good, empowering messages for anyone to hear. But I have to admit to some annoyance in how the story worked through the process of getting that message across.

For example, at one point, Charlie, an avid A's fan, goes to a baseball game with this really cute guy and plays completely dumb as he explains the game to her in very simple terms.  You see, she's "letting him feel useful" because "guys don't want a competitor, they want a cheerleader." Now, one of the other characters tells her off for it, which I appreciate, but I have a hard time believing after hanging around her brothers that much that she's really that clueless about what guys want in a girl.

And there are tons of situations in the story that reinforce ridiculous stereotypes. Apparently, naming four types of makeup or two hairstyles is a hard question for boys, and every girl knows the author of Pride and Prejudice. And real girls don't play football with the boys - except that Charlie did until she decided she shouldn't because of what this one particular boy might think.

Oh, and Charlie's dad got all his advice on raising a girl from a book, including buying bras and having "the talk" when her period started. Really? There weren't any aunts or grandmas or cousins who could help out? He couldn't reach out to a friend or neighbor, a teacher at school or a woman at church to help Charlie through some of those sensitive topics?

The subplot about Charlie's mom wasn't very well-developed. Without divulging spoilers, I can't say much except that it deserved a more thorough treatment than it got all the way around: what Charlie's mother was dealing with, her father's decision to withhold the complete truth from Charlie, and how Charlie handled the revelation.

To sum up, great overarching message, characters I liked and solid relationships between them, but On the Fence really had some holes for me.

On the Fence
by Kasie West
ISBN: 9780062235671
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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