by C.H. Armstrong (Goodreads Author)

4.5 stars, actually.

Abby begins the book sleeping in a van with her mother, step-father, and little sister having just arrived in Rochester, MN from Omaha.

The entire reason she has to move is best left for you to discover on your own, but let’s say it involves school and social media and all her friends rejecting her.

Abby and her family are trying to survive with very little money just as Abby and sister are starting schools. Abby quickly falls in with an accepting crowd of friends, and is shown her schedule by a cute boy.

A cute boy who happens to be extremely popular, quarterback of the football team, interested in Abby, but saddled with an ex girlfriend who seems hellbent on making Abby’s life miserable.

Abby has to hide her sleeping arrangements, sponge-bathing in Walmart, and Salvation Army dinners from her new friends, just as she auditions for the school’s Fall Concert solo and gets asked to Homecoming.

I live in Rochester, so it was very cool to see how the love interest with Mayo doctor parents living in Pill Hill, hear the library described accurately, follow Abby through a thinly disguised Mayo high school, as well as watch her take advantage of some of Rochester’s programs such as sunday noon meal, salvation army dinners, Interfaith Hospitality Network/Family Promise, and the Dorothy Day house.

Abby and her mom, who she blames for their move, had a contentious relationship that was painful to watch. As a mother of a 17 year old, though, it rang true, despite me wanting reasons for the way the mom acted just as fiercely as Abby did. It was hard to paint a picture of the mom due to those Omaha behaviors.

And Abby is just a bit of a Mary Sue other than the way she treats her mom. She’s beautiful, everybody (but the bully) loves her, she has an amazing singing voice, she never resents having to take care of her sister, etc. etc. At times I wanted her to be less mature about waking up, picking up her sister, or dealing with schoolwork. There were also a couple kind of manufactured-feeling plot things, such as the Fall Concert Solo role being one person who gets lots of duets and solos (almost all high school productions I’ve known choose the songs and then dole out the solos to multiple people). Love interest also felt weirdly mature and caring, and I wished he’d been a bit more oblivious and unintentionally difficult due to his money and social class.

I also am a little uneasy with the degree of outright hatred and clear bullying that the ex girlfriend showed. My teen daughters have often called out TV shows with outright bullies and said that high school is not like that now, but that bullies use more gaslighting and subtle ways of excluding or ignoring people. The result of this outright bullying is that Abby comes off more as a victim and less agency than I wanted her to have. It also made the ex girlfriend less believable as a character.

This book has so much good stuff going for it, the support of Abby’s friends, the realities of homelessness, the highlighting of how music can create safe places of self confidence for high school students, and I wanted the reality of high school life with its more subtle hurts and slights to be portrayed as Abby’s challenge that she has to overcome. When the ex girlfriend’s bullying finally comes to a head, it is epic and dramatic because of the way it calls out to her Omaha issues, but it felt a bit too forced as a plotline.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. I think young adults in midsized towns such as Rochester, where homelessness and poverty are often kept out of the downtown Mayo Clinic area, should be exposed to the challenges some students face trying to seem normal.