Emmy and Oliver were best friends until their forty-third day of second grade. On that day, Emmy watched Oliver get into his dad’s car at the end of school, not knowing that would be the last time she would ever see him.
For ten years, anyway.
Oliver’s dad kidnapped him. A nationwide police search follows, but no matter how hard they try and how many appeals Oliver’s mum makes on the TV, Oliver is not found. For ten years, Emmy doesn’t know what became of her best friend.
Until one day, suddenly, Oliver comes back.
Emmy and Oliver, by Robin Benway, is one of those books that I obsessed about. I was so intrigued by the premise that by the time I actually had the book in my hands, I was a little afraid to read it. I had built it up into such an experience in my head, I was sure it would only disappoint.
It did not.
Oliver’s kidnap hangs heavy over the lives of everybody in the book. In reaction to witnessing their friend go through one of the worst tragedies imaginable, Emmy’s parents become restrictively overprotective. Don’t get me wrong – they are nice people and likeable characters – but their anxiety is like a third parent, pushing Emmy away even as it wishes to draw her closer. In response, she does what any teenager would: Emmy carefully curates a secret life, while keeping up appearances of being the low risk child her parents need her to be. In secret, Emmy surfs. She’s really good at it. She’s so good in fact that her wish to pursue it is influencing her decision over where to go to college. Against her parents’ wishes (and without their knowledge) she has applied to UC San Diego, a college a couple hours away which has one of the country’s best surf teams. Emmy’s parents’ have told her that she’s going to a local community college and living at home for the first year at least. Emmy has no idea how to get them to let her go.
Emmy is dealing with all of this even before Oliver’s sudden re-entrance into her life. I think Robin Benway handled his return in a truly skilled way. Oliver’s reappearance brought so much grief for lost time to the surface. To see him, for almost everybody in the neighbourhood, was to be filled with regret for him and his whole family – his mother who had missed most of his childhood, and his baby sisters who hadn’t ever even met him. Oliver, even in finally – finally – being present, is an embodiment of all that has been lost – to Emmy and to everyone else whose lives have been touched by his kidnap.
And, honestly, his being back was also super awkward. How do you make small talk with the school kidnap victim? There is no social hand book for this stuff. Add to that the fact that Oliver barely even remembers Emmy and her friends – while he has been something of a defining presence in their lives – and you’ve got quite a situation.
Watching Emmy and Oliver rebuilding their friendship is so wonderful. It isn’t easy. Emmy is making plans for her future while Oliver is trying desperately to come to terms with his past, but despite that, in fleeting moments that grow into something more concrete, they uncover the long lost connection that made them friends in the first place.
This alone would probably have been enough for me, but in addition to the ever evolving Emmy/Oliver dynamic, Benway writes awesome friendships between Emmy and her best friends, Caroline and Drew. I get so frustrated with how one dimensional side characters frequently are in YA, that how deeply imagined Caroline and Drew were was so refreshing to read. I was as eager to spend time with them as I was Emmy and Oliver. Caroline is a neat-freak forced to share a bedroom with her disaster area of a sister. Drew hangs out with his boyfriend in Starbucks to avoid his conservative family. I enjoyed being vicarious friends with them immensely.
One of my favourite scenes happens after Oliver has been home a couple months, and Emmy, Caroline and Drew invite him to a party. A gross guy hits on Emmy, and when Oliver asks about it, Emmy and Caroline explain to him exactly why this guy is so bad:
“…Caro said to Oliver…. ‘he always hits on her. What did he say to you that one time, Em?’
I reached for my beer, then took a sip and passed it to Caro.
‘You’re not like other girls,’ I said, in my best dude-bro voice.
Oliver frowned a little. ‘Is that bad?’ he asked. ‘I thought you were gonna say something way worse.’
‘It’s bad!’ Caro and I both screamed at the same time, then immediately jinxed and unjinxed each other, crossing our fingers and rapping our knuckles against the wooden table. ‘It’s just a stupid thing to say,’ Caro added after we could both speak again.
‘Like, what’s wrong with being like other girls?… girls are awesome! Caro’s awesome.’
‘I am!’ Caro nodded to herself, then jabbed a thumb into her chest. ‘More people should be like me!’”
This drunkenly made point is so valid. There’s this impossible to dispel myth in so much media that ‘not like other girls’ is currency. It’s gross, and unfortunately very common in YA. This self-awareness of genre was part of what made the writing so great. When you read a lot or watch a lot of movies you come to recognise a pattern of plot progression. It often breaks down to four steps – connection, unravelling, fight, reconciliation. Throughout Emmy and Oliver, I kept waiting for this pattern to appear, but it never did, and that lack of familiarity throughout was just so satisfying. The plot did what all its characters are striving to: it went its own way.