Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Sometimes stories with a dead character seem manipulative, that it is used to twist your emotions and I hate that so I really went back and forth about offering to review this book. Now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not sure I will be able to do to justice to how I felt about it. Two former best friends, Hunter and Derek, who were torn apart by one simple kiss have now had to reunite at their friend Justin’s funeral. Justin has a request as his final wish. Derek, Hunter, his girlfriend of three years, Paige, and his closest friend and fellow cancer patient, Jaimie, are to go on what should have been a group road trip and spread his ashes. Hunter especially is really not on board with this idea but he will do it for Justin.
The problem is four years before Derek reacted truly badly to the kiss with Hunter and destroyed the friendship of all three, with Justin the innocent victim. He didn’t even tell Justin what had happened, just ghosted both him and Hunter. For his part (because he is also not blameless when it comes to Justin), Hunter couldn’t handle the memories that Justin conjured about the three of them so he also left Justin behind. Derek was the first person Hunter came out to and his terrible reaction really affected Hunter. Justin tried for a while to keep them together but finally he backed off, even though these were his best friends. He was a smart man and he sort of understood what happened but he missed his friends.
Justin has left specific instructions on where he wants the group to go to do this. He left them enough money to do it right and he took into account each person when he made this trip, even planning down to ice-breaker questions for the car. Jaimie never knew the pre-cancer Justin; Derek and Hunter never knew the sick Justin; Paige knew both but not the way he was with Derek and Hunter. They all have to fill in the blanks for each other as they follow the instructions in his letters. Paige has possession of the letters “But we don’t know what we will be doing on the trip. I didn’t peek inside the envelopes.
The trip is dictated by Justin through the letters he leaves to the group. START HERE is the first and you start to get to know Justin. “When I get better, we’ll all go on the trip together, because I’m pretty confident in my ability to make it pretty epic. We’ll read this letter and take a shot every time I get too sappy.” So much hope. He’s chosen these four friends because they had the biggest impact on his life and he wants this trip to be fun. Because you know, the funeral was yesterday and “Of course, it was the funeral with the most tears the parlor has ever seen, and they needed wet floor signs and everything.” Justin, even while struggling is funny. So off to Cedar Point they go, to throw ashes off the Millennium Force as their first stop.
Derek, “treating anything even slightly homoerotic like it was an airborne pathogen” sometimes really annoyed me. I had a hard time liking him at times because of it. The awkwardness between Derek and Hunter as they are jammed in the back seat together is painful. Justin had asked that Derek, a film director student, document the trip via camera and so at least he has something to distract himself from thinking about the pain he caused. Hunter, surprisingly, forgives him pretty easily for the four years of ghosting and they do what Justin wanted, falling back into friendship. In Chicago they hit up Boystown to eat at the Chicago Diner and as a vegan Chicagoan, this was a great scene for me. I love that place! I was so there with Jaimie (the veg) “I’m never settling for a sh**ty side salad or some soggy fries ever again.” There is a time the trip focuses on Paige and Justin’s final gift to her and I just wanted to hug her for the loss of her first love who loved her so much. They share memories of Justin, get to know each other and experience life for Justin as they drive to the places he wanted them to see.
The road trip is bittersweet and the letters from Justin to each one of them priceless. I loved Paige and Jaimie and Hunter. Luckily, I ended up liking Derek, though it took a while. Hunter, who is going to be a social worker and help people. Paige, who lost her love and still sees good in life. Jaimie, who didn’t expect to survive cancer and even get to have a life. And Derek, who for really the first time is facing something hard. They all loved the same friend, who wanted them to be friends. Hunter’s sister, Julia, is another great character. Their policy of asking if the other just needs to vent or really wants advice was awesome.
There are so many times that you see the extent of Derek. He doesn’t like beer yet drinks it because “I feel like I belong if I have a beer.” He is so clueless sometimes as to how he hurts people, especially Hunter. He’s living with the guilt that he didn’t reach out to Justin or even respond when Justin kept trying. He wanted to tell them he was sick. “And it’s my fault he didn’t.’ Derek folded the letter slowly.” The letter that talks about that had me bawling for this young man with the big heart. “Stuff got really bad yesterday…I almost finally did it. But then I couldn’t and it had time to settle, and I don’t think I have the courage anymore. I love you guys, but I don’t think I could bear it if you changed your numbers, or didn’t remember my voice, or worst case scenario, I told you what was going on and it didn’t change things.”
The friendship between Derek and Hunter returns, with some added bonuses, but Derek is just not able to be honest and as you get to understand his parents, things become clearer. His shame in the shower was so sad but then his plan for staying with Hunter made me want to slap him. “He was desperate, desperate to put Hunter second…” Seriously, he doesn’t get it. But you want him to figure it out.
I was thinking maybe 4 stars for this book but Justin, who has died before the book starts, is worth five stars. What to even say about this caring, funny, loving man who tried so hard to mend the friendship of Derek and Hunter and even when he couldn’t, forgave them and still loved them. The young man who wrote his own obituary? “Sorry, mom.” Justin was so positive, so in love with life, adventurous and happy. “He insisted we go to a club two weeks before he passed. I had to hold him up, but he wanted to dance.” He was just heartbreaking and I cried so hard for the loss of him. “Living like nothing hurt and everything was possible.” If I’m being honest, I cried through the writing of this review as well.
This is the first book by C.M. Valencourt and they blew me away. The book is sad, yes, but it’s hopeful as well. I want them all to find happiness and keep the memory of an adventurous young man alive in the way they live their lives. “Little do they know, I have a fantastic attitude. I’ve never been discouraged in my whole life.”
Cover art lovely and perfect.
Sales Links: Amazon
Kindle Edition, 196 pages
Expected publication: October 9th 2018