On her sixteenth birthday, she receives a UPS package from her artist grandmother, who she's never met in person. It contains a plane ticket to Singapore.
Of course, Vassar has no intention of going, and her parents have no intention of letting her go. For one, no Spore has ever even left the state, let alone the country—for another, missing her summer classes would mean falling behind in her battle with Wendy Stupacker for valedictorian. It would not fit into The Plan.
But then Grandma Gerd calls from Malaysia, and, to put it bluntly, she blackmails her son and daughter-in-law. Vassar only hears eight of the words that make the difference: Bubble, birth, too young, rubber ball, dying, egg. Almost immediately (well, two weeks later, but to a Spore, that is 'almost immediately'), she's on her way to Southeast Asia. Before she goes, she and her friends figure out a way to keep her on track for the valedictory slot:
I'd simply push Advanced Latin Camp to next summer and take the Sub-Molecular Theory class at the junior college during Christmas vacation. And I would convince Principal Ledbetter to allow me to write a novel as a substitute for not only the entire class grade in AP English—but also in AAP English: Advanced Advanced Placement English.
"But what would my novel be about?" I asked.
Denise gave me an incredulous look. "Your trip, of course. Don't reinvent the wheel. Just write everything that happens to you as fiction. Change the names and there you go."
"If necessary, embellish," said Laurel.
"Or just make stuff up," said Amber, her mouth full of pretzels.
"The plot would be the main character trying to figure out The Big Secret. Like a detective story," said Denise.
"But what if I never find out?"
"Then that'll be your ending."
"What if it's really boring? Do you think I'd still get credit?"
Denise shrugged. "Why not? Look how many boring novels get published every year in the name of literature."
"And actually win prizes for being so boring," said Laurel.
"Yeah, being boring must be some sort of prerequisite," said Amber.
It was worth a shot.
From Malaysia to Cambodia to Laos, Vassar grows up, gets to know and connects with her grandmother, meets a cowboy (complete with lasso), pieces together the truth of the Big Secret, almost gets arrested, and learns to Carpe Diem.
The story is told mostly through Vassar's narration but also includes excerpts from her novel and her grandmother's journal, emails from her friends and other related documents.
While the book kept me entertained, I had a number of problems with it. The big one (for me) was that the dialogue didn't ring true. It felt scripted, as if the characters were reciting lines. That made sense in (and even added to) the first part of the book (when Vassar is with her parents or her friends), because everything in her life is planned and controlled. But it continued on, and the last thing that Vassar's trip should have brought to mind is a script.
That issue added to this one: It's another book in which I felt that the characters never became real people. And that made their actions bear less weight—Hanks' sacrifice, Vassar's new-found love for her grandmother, even the romance—none of it ever got to me because I never really believed in the characters. Again and again, I was told that Vassar (fill in the blank here), but I never felt it.
I'm torn about Vassar's novel. As she travels, she emails chapters back to her friends, who email back their comments, often criticizing the actions of her main character, the plot twists and so on. (They, of course, don't realize that everything she's writing is true.) Part of me thought it was a fun way for the author to predict what readers might take issue with in the book. But the other part of me—the cranky part—felt like it was a way of acknowledging possible problems with the book but also a way of leaving them in. I've thought about it a lot, and I'm still torn.
Lastly (and this is super-minor, but I'm going to mention it anyway), I had the Big Secret figured out from the moment it was introduced. Was I supposed to? I'm not sure.
Gosh. I guess I felt a little more strongly about my 'minor issues' than I thought I did. As I said, I enjoyed it. The travelogue element of the book is very strong (the author's details about the different cultures, climate and landscape blended seamlessly into the storyline), so it is definitely a decent pick for teens looking for contemporary fiction about Other Places.