Sometimes it’s easy to remember why you picked up a certain book: a friend recommended it, or you read a great review somewhere, or you liked the cover or the title. Sometimes one recommendation or review isn’t enough, and it’s not until you hear about a book a few times that you’re motivated to pick it up. In the case of Althea & Oliver, I first heard of it in a Booklist review, then it showed up in my e-mail through Penguin’s First to Read program. I liked the names in the title; I liked the fancy ampersand. Was that all?
If it was, it was enough. Taking place in the pre-cell phone 1990s, Althea & Oliver reminded me of some other excellent YA novels, including John Green’s Paper Towns, Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility, Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Set in Wilmington, NC, Althea & Oliver has a few things in common with these books: the focus is close on two characters; it takes place in the South (mostly); and while parental supervision isn’t entirely absent, Althea’s dad Garth and Oliver’s mom Nicky aren’t helicopter parents, either.
Althea and Oliver have been best friends for ten years, but just as Althea begins to see Oliver as more than just a best friend, Oliver falls asleep. Not metaphorically, and not just for a nap: Oliver falls asleep for weeks. While Oliver is asleep, he has episodes – an incident at Waffle House, for example – that he can’t remember when he wakes up. When he wakes up for real, he wants everything to go back to normal. But when it happens again, his mom Nicky begins to do some research, and discovers that Oliver isn’t the only one; what he has is called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), and there’s a study going on in New York.
Oliver doesn’t tell Althea about the study and his imminent departure, at first because he doesn’t know how, and then because of something that happens between them during one of his episodes. When Althea realizes that Oliver is gone, not just asleep, she finds out where he went and goes after him, launching herself into a new phase of life, alone. Althea arrives at the hospital in New York just minutes after Oliver falls asleep again; she winds up in Red Hook, in a house with a bunch of other young adults, and astonishingly – after being friends with no one but Oliver for years – Althea makes friends with them.
Oliver wakes up just before New Year’s, escapes the hospital with another boy in the study, and goes in search of Althea. Improbably, he finds her. He tells her about a possible solution to his KLS, but even if it solves his sleep problems, it won’t solve what went wrong between them. They can’t go back to normal – they can only go forward.
Unconventional and utterly, convincingly real, Althea & Oliver is full of well-rounded, believable characters. No one is a prop, no one is one-dimensional; from Wilmington punk friends Val and Howard (a.k.a. Minty Fresh) to the Red Hook house full of dropouts and vegans, every character in this book could be the center of his or her own story. But it is Althea who is the heart of this one; Althea who is angry and violent, heartbroken and determined, scrappy and searching; Althea who realizes, at last, that neither she nor Oliver are going to get what they want, but that there is something else out there for them both.
I received an e-galley of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program. Althea & Oliver will be published in October 2014.