Allison Whittenberg,
Life is Fine
(Delacorte Press, 2007)

Samara Tuttle couldn't disagree more with the title of this young-adult novel. Her mother is more interested in keeping her sloppy obnoxious boyfriend Q happy than in Samara's well-being; Samara hates school; and her only friend is Dru, an orangutan at the Philadelphia Zoo.

When substitute teacher Jerome Halbrook breezes into her English class, she's ready to blow him off, but Halbrook not only captures her attention with "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, but he engages the entire class in a lively discussion. Samara's interest is piqued, and she starts to explore the world of poetry with the guidance of the man she nicknames Mr. Brook.

Mr. Brook is the first adult in her life who hasn't considered Samara to be a problem or obstacle. His attentiveness is a catalyst; Samara's world opens up as she makes friends, gets a job and learns that she is not powerless to control her life.

Whittenberg's story is simply told and is powerful in its simplicity. Samara's response to the new chain of events in her life is like someone waking from an intense and bad dream. From an environment where no one cares about her, especially her mother, Samara learns to care: first, about Mr. Brook, then about poetry, friendships, self respect and her place in the world.

Samara tells the story in first person. She is an honest narrator who does not embellish her situation, and she adds a healthy dose of self-analysis to the story. The reader sympathizes with her easily, especially at her lowest points. At the same time, she doesn't drown in self-pity, and as her strength emerges, so does her personality.

The other characters support the narrative well, most notably Mr. Brook, Samara's new friend Steph'Annie, and Samara's pathetic and self-pitying mother who feels burdened with Samara and wants "someone in my life to spend time with" even if it's a lazy cheating slob who punches her daughter in the face.

Whittenberg appends the texts of the poems Mr. Brook reads in the story, including the eponymous "Life is Fine" by Langston Hughes. By the end of the novel, Samara is inclined to believe that life is fine, indeed.

review by
Donna Scanlon

17 January 2009

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