Constant Reader Book of The Month Club April
The Unexpected Everything and Morgan Matson’s Well-Ordered Universe
I have dealt with some fairly dark books for the first two entries in this series, so for the next few I’ll try to focus on some lighter — but no less worthy — subjects.
As someone who loves TV, I have always been fond of the crossover, ever since Lennie Briscoe first met John Munch in Baltimore in the meeting of Law and Order and Homicide. I’m equally fond of any form of media that admits that they share a similar world — the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Greg Berlanti’s Arrow-verse are among the most prominent today. And for those of us who read many of the same books by the same author for years and decades on end, we frequently encounter the characters from one novel ‘passing by’ in another novel by that same author.
The most prominent example of this is, of course, Stephen King, whose literary world occupies so many universes that volumes have been composed to keep track of them as his novels have grown. I have to admit that over the years many of these crossovers often leave me feeling more depressed than having gone through so many of the original novels. I read and reread It so many times as a teenager that I actually thought it my favorite novel — until I read books such as The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher which essentially told us that the epic battle the Losers had fought was in vain and that Pennywise was still haunting the sewers of Derry. Similarly, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to get through the mess that was The Dark Half and then read several subsequent novels to learn that after Thad Beaumont defeated George Stark, his wife took the his children and left him, he became a full-fledged alcoholic and his sanity deteriorated to the point he eventually killed himself. Like so much of King’s fiction, when you find his Easter eggs, they are inevitably rotting and stinking up the joint — and that’s without including The Dark Tower series.
Another novelist that does this with a far lighter touch is the romantic writer Emily Giffin, whose Something Borrowed and Something Blue engaged the stories of Rachel, who has an affair with her best friend’s fiancée in the former and Darcy’s story in the second novel, which fills in the blanks. Both novels do end happily for everybody involved and at a certain point, these two best friends even make up. This has been a starting point for much of Giffin’s fiction, which while focused primarily in New York, also visits Atlanta and Texas, with cameos from characters throughout her work permeating, some obvious, some so subtle you can miss them unless you read carefully. Giffin’s work is worthy of a series of movies, but Something Borrowed was a critical and box office bomb and is unlikely that we will see that.
I have found over the years that there are many young adult novelists who tell stories that take place involving friends of characters in one novel or the other. But one of the ones whose work I have come to admire the most over the last few years is Morgan Matson. You’re going to need a little history before I get to the point.
Matson made her literary debut with Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour, the story of Amy Curry, a teenager whose father is dead and who is moving cross-country from LA to Stanwich, Connecticut. She finds herself traveling with Roger, a young man who has undergone a similar loss and who convinces her to go off the beaten path and take, well, an ‘epic detour’. The novel ends with Amy finally arriving in Stanwich, and essentially Matson has never left it.
Matson’s novels often vary widely in tone. Second Chance Summer tells the story of Taylor, a teenage girl (yes, they are the center of almost all of Matson’s works; keep reading) whose family gets the devastating news that their father is in the final stages of stomach cancer and has only a few months to live. The family goes to their vacation house to try and pretend to have a normal summer before darkness falls. On the other end of the spectrum is Save the Date, the story of how on the weekend of Charlie Grant’s sister’s wedding, everything that can possibly go wrong not only does but does so exponentially. It plays almost entirely as pure farce for most of the run….before a twist that ultimately reveals that everything the Grant family has been dealing with this weekend is child’s play compared to the trauma that must not face. (There is far more to both these novels, but I’m going to stay vague because I may very well review one of them at a later date.)
All of Matson’s novels are brilliant, but if I had to pick a personal favorite, it is the one that I read first: The Unexpected Everything. It may not be Matson’s best work, but of all the ones I have read, it is the one I have found myself rereading more often then the rest, partly to see if there is more to discover, mostly because it’s so much fun.
The novel centers on Andrea Walker, the daughter of the Congressman who represents Stanwich. Five years earlier, he was the front-runner for Vice President when Andie’s mother developed cancer and he had to drop out. After she died, he and his daughter have basically lived their lives on separate paths. Now there is a fundraising scandal involving one of his aides, and it is looking like he will be forced to resign.
Andie, who has spent the last five years trying to keep her head down, has been trying to put this backburner by focus on the fact that she will be leaving for Baltimore on a summer internship in a few days. Then the day after the scandal breaks, the offer is rescinded and not subtly. Less because she is worried about her college transcript and more because she can’t picture the summer at home with her father (there is an early scene with them eating pizza that leaves a hole in your heart) she blindly opens a flier and finds herself applying to taking care of pets, which will mostly involve dog walking.
While Andie’s familial situation is dire, she has managed to survive with the help of her circle of friends. There is Palmer, the bold and brassy youngest child of the Alden family who has spent the last few years in love with Tom, an aspiring (and relatively successful) actor. There are Bri and Toby, two friends who are so joined at the hip they are often mistaken for the other (even though they look nothing like) Both share a devotion to film: Bri is madly in love with old movies; Toby was exposed to romantic comedies at a young age, and her friends all thing it has warped her sense of what love should really look like. Rounding out the group is Wyatt; the slacker musician who everybody likes and Toby has determined is her soulmate, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In the middle of her job, Andie encounters Clark and his enormous sheepdog, Bertie. Andie, who is usually the instigator of all of her romantic relationships, spends a couple of sessions trying to ask Clark out before he does. It helps matters that unlike the rest of Stanwich, Clark doesn’t know who she is. (Indeed, it isn’t until their first date that they both learn their actual full names.) Furthermore, Andie doesn’t know that Clark is actually C.B. McAllister, author of two best selling fantasy novels that have left the world waiting for the trilogy to be completed. (Some may find this an obstacle impossible to overcome. I grew up reading the YA novels of Gordon Korman, who wrote his first best selling novel at the age of fourteen. Matson isn’t talking out of school here.)
Andie is someone who has spent her entire life staying just above the surface and giving people what they think they want — and she doesn’t like committing; the average length of her relationships is three weeks. She doesn’t understand why Clark doesn’t seem to like her, and the date goes badly. She goes to the Orchard (a Matson youth hideout) and is hanging out happily with her friends, when Clark calls her utterly panicked. Bertie has eaten chocolate, and he’s scared he’ll die. Unable to reach her bosses, Andie goes to Clark’s home and they spend the night treated Bertie (inevitably, this leads to Bertie vomiting on her)
With nowhere else to go, Andie finds herself doing something she’s never really done with any boy: having a real conversation. She finds herself doing what you do with strangers: sharing secrets you can’t tell your friends. She doesn’t know how to deal with her father, and she’s not sure he cares about her anymore. Clark tells her that the house is one he is borrowing from his agent, that he lives in Colorado, and that the underlying condition of the house-sitting is that when the summer is over, there had better be a book at the end. Something he doesn’t think he can do as he’s undergoing an epic case of writer’s block. (We see excerpts of both ‘novels’ as epigraphs throughout the book.)
The night ends with Clark asking Andie on another date, but when Andie returns home her father is furious because after her date with Clark, she never called him back and has been gone for a day. Andie reacts by storming out, only to be dragged home by her father an hour later, telling her friends she’s going to be grounded for a very long time. When he tries to berate her, she wants to bury it but finds she can’t let it go and utterly unleashes how neglectful a parent he has been for five years, how her life has been destroyed by the scandal too, and how she doesn’t even know if he loves her anymore.
Utterly floored by this, later that day, her father invites her out for ice cream, and in a move that utterly stuns her, apologizes for his behavior and offers to try and spend the next few months trying to rebuild their relationship. A lot of this does involve negotiation — including the terms of the grounding — but Andie feels optimistic. Then Clark shows up for their next ‘date’ — with flowers and an audio copy of his first book — and her father gently reminds her of the grounding. However, she lets him walk him back to his car. Clark expresses his fear that he might not have any stories left in him, and Andie finds herself doing the only thing she can think of — starting a story for the two of them to tell. Naturally, the chapter ends with them kissing for the first time.
In the hands of a less confident novelist, the story would end right here. The Unexpected Everything has these critical scenes all happen well before the book is even at its halfway point. Matson continues to let the story unfold on three parallel tracks: the burgeoning romance between Clark and Andie, the rebuilding of Andie’s relationship with her father, and Andie’s relationship with her friends with Clark’s introduction to them. What makes this novel genius is that Matson treats all three relationships with an equal level of significance that leads to some of the novel’s funniest and best sequences.
Much of the humor comes in the process of Clark — who seems intimidated by her friends in the early stages — becoming a part of the group. This starts simply with Clark and Tom engaging in all-night movie marathons where they discuss the most important question of our time: What is the plural of Batman? One of the most hysterical sequences in the novel unfolds when Andie finishes reading — or rather listening to — Clark’s books and becomes extremely angry at how the second book ended. I’m not sure what is funnier in this sequence: Andie’s anger at how Clark killed of a character, Tom’s reaction to this, or Clark’s when he tries to deal with Andie and Tom’s rage and then curiosity.
The longest chapter of the novel centers on a scavenger hunt. They are a tradition in the Alden family and one of the things that Andie has been looking forward to all summer (it was actual the first bright spot she could see to her internship being cancelled). Andie and Toby end up being paired together and Toby is determined to win because one of the prizes could be ending her summer long bet to only use emojis in any conversation she has with anyone. (Many of the sections of the novel involve text conversations among Andie and her friends; by the end of the book you will simultaneously never want to see an emoji again and only want to text this way.) This sections ends up interlocking all three relationships in a way…and though we don’t know it at the time, a critical event happens whose full import we don’t learn until much later.
I consider the scavenger hunt a tour de force and the highlight of the book.
As the summer approaches its end, many critical things happen. The reader may be able to foresee some of them, and will also have a fairly good idea how they’ll be resolved. I’ll just that say that Matson does tie everything together in perhaps the most surprising way possible, and that while the ending is satisfying, not all of them are happy. One relationship that the reader has become invested in (not the one you may think) is broken irrevocably and while it may well be for the best for both the characters involved, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt us — or Andie — any less.
If you only read The Unexpected Everything once, you will find it utterly delightful. If you read it after having read the rest of Matson’s fiction — or like me, re-read it after having done so — you’ll be utterly delighted at all of the Easter eggs from what I might well call the Stanwich Literary Universe. Amy Curry, the heroine of Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour is mentioned as a successful actress who attended the local high school. We meet the Edwards children when Andie comes to walk their dog (though Matson never identifies them by name, but you’ll recognize the dog). But the novel that is referenced most clear is Since You’ve Been Gone. The story refers on multiple occasions to Emily Hughes and Frank Porter the couple who was at the center of that novel, and who are now according to Andie the high school’s ‘Golden Couple’. (Andie had a crush on Frank the previous summer. High school in a small town.) During the scavenger hunt, Andie runs into Emily at Captain Pizza (which is also a vital part of Matson’s world) and unable to come up with a plausible excuse tells her why she wants the menu. Emily’s friend Dawn says: “So you’re checking items off a list? What’s that like?” If you’ve read the previous novel, you will not only get why Dawn said it, but why Emily rolls her eyes and makes a remark about pizza fumes going to her friend’s brain. Nor are the people the only Easter eggs involved: Tom spends most of the summer rehearsing Bug Juice for the community theater, a play that is important to Since You’ve Been Gone, the Stanwich Art Museum is critical in several novels, and in a bit of foreshadowing we learn that Andie’s father is very fond of the antic in the comic Grant Central Station — something that will be at the center of Save the Date.
Later novels by Matson will reveal bits and pieces about the fate of Andie Walker, her father and how her relationship with Clark and her friends work out even after she leaves Stanwich for college. Matson has said repeatedly that she doesn’t write sequels to her works, but given the interconnectedness of all of her novels, even though I wouldn’t mind a sequel to Unexpected Everything, I don’t need one. Right now, I’m looking forward to reading her most recent novel Take Me Home Tonight, which involves two Stanwich students who end up spending a night in New York, but nevertheless find that they can’t escape the Stanwich Literary Universe. And the more of Matson’s work I read, the happier I am that I found it in the first place