Adrienne was living the good life of a suburban teenager. She had a nice, funny boyfriend. She was a track star for her Catholic high school. She was friendly with her mom and engaged in class. But when she gets pregnant accidentally, all that changes. She wants an abortion, but as a minor, there are roadblocks in her way. As she deals with the emotional fallout from her decision, she finds her relationships with her family, friends, and boyfriend changing, often in ways she never could have predicted.
The plot is familiar, but author Christine Heppermann comes at it from some intriguing, fascinating directions. Ask Me How I Got Here is what’s known as a ‘verse novel’, a novel-length story told through a series of poems. I’m not terribly familiar with the form, but I’m a big fan of the way Heppermann uses it here. Each poem is an idea, a moment in time, and isolating each moment from one another allows for both a fleet, dexterous story and for a surprising amount of depth in small moments. It creates equity between the big moments and the little moments – getting an abortion, walking home from school – that makes the book feel like a series of snapshots. And Heppermann is good at putting together poems that subvert expectations in canny ways. One particular poem was a total gut punch for me, in a way that prose simply cannot emulate.
There are only a few moments where I think this equity doesn’t entirely work. Late in the book, Adrienne reconnects with an old friend, and because of the nature of the style, their relationship develops very quickly. Where, for instance, her struggles with her parents are given time to breathe a bit, her developing friendship with depressed former track star Juliana really does move way too quickly. With another few poems and just a little more focus on her life outside two core relationships, an already-rich coming-of-age novel could have been truly spectacular. As it is, some of Heppermann’s more excessive little stories, particularly one subplot that never worked for me about Addie’s attempts to write a song, end up crowding out some of the meaning of the book.
I sometimes think that Young Adult literature has an ambition problem, before promptly ridiculing myself as an old fogey–all mainstream art develops an ambition problem as trend calcifies into formula. Ask Me How I Got Here isn’t chasing any trends. It’s a gorgeous, lyrical, character-driven coming-of-age story that deals with the complex inner life of a teenager in a believable and emotional way. While not every poem is a hit, many ultimately being functional bits that move the story along, every so often you’ll turn the page and find something really special, and you’ll find yourself compelled to stop for a moment, read it aloud, go think on it. It’s hard for a good book to make me never want to put it down; it’s even harder for one to make me want to put it down to reflect on it in silence for a little while. It’s a smartly-written book by Heppermann, one that will make even YA fans disinterested in poetry want to track down a little more of her work.
Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Dark Souls, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Greenwillow Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.