High Dive. By Tammar Stein. Knopf. $15.99.
How to Build a House. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.
Loss, finding oneself, uncertainty, the drive to know – these are the recurring themes of a host of novels for teenagers, including these two, both of which handle their subject matter with sensitivity but not with a great deal of originality. In High Dive, the second novel by Tammar Stein (whose debut, Light Years, was very well received), what holds Arden Vogel’s family together is a small house in Sardinia that is filled with her childhood memories. The house represents her parents’ love and her own sense of self. But it is a flawed symbol: Arden’s father dies suddenly, and then her mother is deployed to Iraq, and there is no longer a way to keep the house. It is Arden herself who must go to Europe to get the house ready for sale, all the while dreading both her mother’s danger and her own sense of disconnection from her roots. Small wonder, then, that when she meets three apparently carefree girls of her own age who are heading for Europe for summer break, she joins them and does her best to enjoy all the tourist spots and all the carefree living she can. But even while seeing art in Florence or climbing the Eiffel Tower, Arden finds her thoughts drifting back to her mother’s safety and her own responsibilities, which she will have to face sooner rather than later. Of course, it turns out that the apparently blithe girls have their own troubles – one is pregnant by an ex-boyfriend, for example – but their problems are not Arden’s, and she knows she eventually has to go to Sardinia to get on with her life. And she does, finding there a level of support she never expected, and learning that she can indeed handle what life has thrown at her so far – and, by implication, what it will throw at her in the future. None of Arden’s progress is surprising or (in the context of this sort of book) particularly unusual, but Stein manages to tell the story with an appealing mixture of both sensitivity and realistic grittiness.
How to Build a House has a house as a focus, too, but not in the same way. Dana Reinhardt’s third novel for young adults is the story of Harper Evans, who journeys from California to a small town in Tennessee to help rebuild a home destroyed by a tornado. But what she is really trying to do, of course, is rebuild her sense of self and of her own home. Harper (whose mother died when she was two years old) loves her stepmother, Jane, and her stepsister, Tess – who is her best friend. But the whole arrangement unravels quickly when Harper’s dad and Jane get a divorce, sundering everything on which Harper has come to rely. Harper knows she is running away by going to Tennessee to work on home rebuilding, but she wants to run away, and likes the idea of maybe doing some good at the same time. And she needs time to think about herself and where she stands, without emotional entanglements. But there will inevitably be an emotional entanglement in Tennessee – in the form of Teddy, the son of the family for whom the home is being rebuilt. Slowly, slowly, Harper learns to trust someone again, and even comes to love Teddy, a relationship that “feels like the most important thing that’s ever happened in my life.” The changes involving Teddy – and the re-entry of Tess in Harper’s life – are what lead to an unsurprising but emotionally satisfying sense that Harper has built not only a house but also the start of a better life for herself. The theme and its execution are nothing new; nor is Reinhardt’s handling of Harper’s story. But readers will find the conclusion more than satisfactory nevertheless.