Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door is a refreshing, funny, and summery read that takes a dramatic and sudden turn, a turn which made my heart ache in a way that few cutesy contemporary novels have managed whilst also unapologetically presenting a sickeningly sweet love story between a pair of teenagers.
“The Garretts were forbidden from the start. But that’s not why they were important.”
Samantha Reed has spent her life gazing across at her neighbours, The Garretts, and their loud, rambunctious, sloppy lives. They are everything her own home and family life is not – chaotic but loving. After years of being an outside observer, one summer Samantha finds herself easily slipping into life in the Garrett household when she begins to get closer to the boy-next-door Jase Garrett and the two fall in love. Welcomed into a family so freely, Samantha finds it a jarring change from her own household, with her mostly absent sister and perfectionist, politician mother, but keeps the Garretts her little secret. As with all secrets, the truth will out eventually, and in a shocking series of events, the Garretts and the Reeds find themselves necessarily thrown together with Samantha finding her loyalties tested to the extreme.
It’s difficult to explain why I decided to give this young-adult contemporary such a high rating – which sounds slightly snobbier than intended but allow me to explain. My Life Next Door somehow, expertly, manages to whisk a reader along on, yes, quite a nice mushy romantic read as we see the bubbling feelings grow between Samantha Reed and Jase Garrett… but that’s not all that we get.
In my experience, the use of the present tense can be gimmicky but, in this book’s case, it simply allows us to experience the summer along with Sam, along with its many highs, and its surprising and sudden lows. In fact, I would argue the highs were so much more enjoyable because of the dark undercurrent of unease built up around Grace, her politician mum’s latest boyfriend/campaign manager, Clay Tucker. There is something instantly unlikable about Clay, but it is only as the story progresses that you truly learn the extent to which he is focused on Grace’s political campaign chances, above all else. It is a canny way of showing the potential effects (negative and otherwise) that career ambition can bring, to an individual, to a family, and to their friends. And seeing it all through Samantha’s eyes brings it down to a believable level.
“It was like watching a silent movie, one so different from the life I lived.”
A ‘hallelujah’ must also be spared for the inclusion of the messy and chaotic life inside the Garrett house. One of the biggest draws to keep reading, for me, was living life amongst this crazy bunch of people, and Huntley Fitzpatrick does an excellent job of portraying each of the Garretts in such a way that none of them blend into each other – they all have distinct (and quite loud) personalities. From Alice to Patsy to Harry to Andy to Duff to Joel to Jase himself to his anxious younger brother George, the Garretts are all united by their undeniable affection for their family as they breeze in and out of the house and the narrative. George is the best, George is the one I instantly wanted to pick up and hug forever. The family dynamics were especially relatable to me because my mum’s side of the family and my dad’s are stark contrasts, not unlike the difference between the Garretts and the Reeds actually. Having lived in a three-person (and, briefly, four, when my much older sister moved back home for a little while) household for most of my life, I understand something of Samantha’s fascination with the sprawling lives of the many Garrett kids.
“The Garretts were my bedtime story, long before I ever thought I’d be part of the story myself.”
Something about Sam’s friend, Nan Mason, didn’t quite work for me; I didn’t understand the draw of her friendship, or why Samantha would stick around a person who was, to be honest, quite a disdainful and judgemental friend. (But, I suppose, we all have one of those!) Nan’s fuck-up brother, Tim, on the other hand, was delightful. He enters the story as a delinquent, probably druggie, kind of a waster who is throwing his life away – there’s much more to Tim’s story, I’m sure, and I definitely feel that the companion book, The Boy Most Likely To, will undoubtedly explore his character in interesting ways. It was refreshing to see a ‘fuck up’ sort of character who did actually fuck up, royally, in the space of the story itself, rather than just hearing that they had done so in the past. Giving your characters permission to screw up in morally questionable ways is a brave choice for any writer because it relies on portraying the redeemable side of their personality well enough to stop them being just hated by your readers – and I think Fitzpatrick pulls it off.
“In real life, it just isn’t like that. Jase has to take off his shirt and fumbles with his belt buckle and I hope around the room pulling off my socks, wondering just how unsexy that is. People in movies don’t even have socks.“
I’m going to be flippant for a moment (and slightly spoilery, though nothing big I promise) and say I also appreciated the little trip Jase and Sam take to purchase some, what shall we say, ‘protection’. You know what, far too many YA and romance books never actually show the slightly awkward and embarrassing necessities of potential sexual relationships, like someone having to address the fact that they’ll need to go get condoms at some point. I laughed so hard along with them as they grew closer through mutual confusion over the many options on offer. That is the random bit of realism I want in my YA contemporaries, thank you.
“The little ones watch, wide-eyed and bewildered. The frozen expression on George’s face is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to look at. All his imagined disasters, and he never imagined this.”
All of this combined makes me approve of the ‘realistic fiction’ categorisation that this book has on Goodreads. Because, yes, it’s fluffy, and yes I did roll my eyes a couple of times at Jase and Sam’s shenanigans, but I also found myself grinning like a lovestruck idiot and laughing along with the Garretts in all the hecticness of their household – it’s a story with a lot of heart behind it, but it also has a pleasingly darker turn that served to cut through the sugary sweetness and add a real depth to the story. All too often I’ve found that the ‘problem’ posed within romance stories to act as the conflict or wedge between the would-be couple is a sham ‘problem’ and isn’t actually that much of a barrier if the two people just sat down and communicated openly, so kudos here must be given to the problem which Fitzpatrick lays out in My Life Next Door because boy, oh boy, is it a big moral dilemma that could serve to end a romance pretty sharpish.
“Every time, I’ve bitten my tongue, stayed silent, with the thought: If I tell him, I’ll lose him. Tonight is when I know. I already have.”
If you are a fan of contemporaries, a fan of YA, a fan of ‘summer reads’, a fan of books with a strong family dynamic, or all of the above, then I would highly encourage you to read My Life Next Door. One of the reasons I picked it up in the first place was because the main character’s mother was a politician and I’d never read a book from the point of view of a teenager in that position – I’m a fan of the film Chasing Liberty, if anyone has seen it, and I don’t know how much that random thought factored into my decision to try it. Either way, I’m glad I did, because it’s true what they say about this book – it’s a story with a lot of heart, a lot of mush, a lot of humour, but also a lot of honesty beneath the sugary sweet surface of Jase and Samantha’s blossoming summer romance.
“Our house was Mom’s work of art, her testament to the fact that she deserved the best of everything. But what I loved was the view. And for so long, that was who I was. The girl who watched the Garretts. My life next door.”