If books could go through puberty, this is what you would get: funny, sarcastic, and heartbreaking all at once. A little voice crack here, a little embarrassment there. Ah, the glory of the teenage years. (Thank God I never have to live through them again.)
Ryan Dean West is a brilliant but insecure 14-year-old who finds himself a Junior at Pine Mountain boarding school (another example of this year’s trend of rich kids in YA lit). This year he has the dubious honor of being sent to “Opportunity Hall” for the crimes he committed the year before. When we first meet Ryan Dean, nicknamed Winger for his position on the Rugby team, the self proclaimed loser is simply hoping that he survives the year with his new roommate.
Ryan Dean is in love with his best friend Annie, who claims she could never be in love with someone as young as him. His relationship with his previous roommates is strained. And he finds himself making new friends, one of which he can’t help but notice is gay, but he’s basically cool about it. There are creepy teachers, nutsack injuries, embarrassing drunken moments, and all the stuff that makes the teenage years so insufferable.
Throughout the book we see into Ryan Dean through little comics and drawings. I loved this little touch. It gave the book personality, and reinforced Ryan Dean’s spunk.
So anyhow, you are reading along, laughing (tone, voice), cringing (dude makes some seriously bad decisions), wincing (diarrhea spells, groin injuries, boners) and then BAM – Smith sucker punches you in the gut when a terrible thing happens. I am not kidding, I BAWLED LIKE A BABY. Seriously. I laid there in the fetal position crying, “Why, Andrew Smith, Why?” And then I texted Christie and was all, “Have you read Winger yet? Go read it! Right now! And then text me!” (Let the record show she has not yet read it and texted me.) Andrew Smith eats readers’ hearts for breakfast and washes it down with an elixir of their tears.
Ryan Dean is your fantastic yet typical teen, he is horny as all get out, uncomfortable in his own skin, and dancing the delicate dance between self proclaimed loser and guy coming into his own. In short, he kind of rocks and you end up kind of loving him. You either are this guy or know who this guy is, and he is secretly awesome and just doesn’t know it yet.
He is surrounded by a motley crew of other horny, rowdy teens, a less refined version of The Dead Poet’s Society if you will. But each of them an important part of Ryan Dean’s journey, and interesting characters in their own rights.
This is a glorious book with a strong and realistic male point of view. At times funny, in the end it will rip your heart out through your throat, but that is glorious too. Not how it happens, that part totally sucks and has an all too painful realism to it, but in how successful Smith is in telling this story. I read this book because A. S. King told me to on Twitter, and I didn’t think she would steer me wrong. She didn’t. Winger is a triumph of storytelling. Booklist, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly all give it a starred review. I give it 5 stars as well. Now I am going to go back and read The Marbury Lens, and I hang my head in shame that I haven’t read it yet (and yes, I know it is very different.)
As a side note, I met Andrew Smith at TLA and he revealed that he wrote this book in part because he himself was an advanced student, 14 and a junior in high school. So it can happen.