Notes from the Midnight Driver. By Jordan Sonnenblick. Scholastic. $16.99.
This is a polarizing book. It’s not intended that way, but it’s one of those books that some readers will take to immediately, while others will quickly find it intolerably sweet and will stop reading long before the end.
There’s one character in Notes from the Midnight Driver who is dynamic and often laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not the book’s protagonist and narrator, 16-year-old Alex Gregory, and that’s part of the difficulty with Jordan Sonnenblick’s novel. Alex is a typical troubled teen, with girl trouble and family trouble and growing-up trouble. His parents are separated and his father is living with Alex’s former third-grade teacher, of all people, and Alex is simply furious, so one night, having done too much underage drinking, Alex takes his mother’s car to go tell his father off face to face…and promptly crashes, ending up in court, where he is sentenced by Judge Trent to community service.
The particular form of service involves visits to a senior center, where Alex is supposed to spend time with an irascible and generally difficult resident named Solomon (Sol) Lewis.
It’s obvious where this is going to go. The Alex-Sol relationship will be super-difficult at the start, then rocky for a time, but after a while a sort of mutual respect will develop, and then Alex will come to regard Sol as a father figure (replacing his own now-absent father), and then Sol will die at the end – but his legacy will live on in what Alex has learned from him. This is, in fact, exactly what happens, yet this detailing of the plot will not spoil the book at all for readers who like this sort of thing – because what matters here is not so much what happens as how it happens. Sol is one of those marvelously crusty characters who steal every scene in which they appear. Fluent in Yiddish, especially Yiddish insults, he baits and bothers Alex constantly, until Alex senses what is good and true in Sol beneath all the bluster, and the two develop a mutual understanding that is literally lifelong (well, as long as Sol’s remaining life, anyway).
The predictability of the book’s plot is what will turn off some readers; the cloying elements in the relationship of Alex and Sol will turn off others. But the essential humanity of the connections that develop between these two lonely people will be very attractive to some teens, and the way in which Sol and Alex bond (especially after they discover their mutual love of music) will make the book a winning tear-jerker for others. Notes from the Midnight Driver will not please everyone, but those whom it does please will find it very moving indeed.