Winger

by Andrew Smith
ages: 14+
First sentence: “I said a silent prayer.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at ABA Winter institute for me. Yes, I have taken that long to get to it.

Ryan Dean (yes, that’s his whole first name) West has a lot going for him: he’s a junior at Pine Mountain, a boarding school for troubled rich kids (his dad’s a high-powered Boston lawyer) in the Pacific Northwest. He is first string winger (think running back in football, but more intense) for the rugby team. He’s pretty smart.

But there are some downsides: he got transferred into O-Hall this year because he was caught hacking into a cell phone account at the end of last year. And, to top it all off: hes only 14.

And when you’re in O-Hall with all the delinquent football and rugby players? It’s not going to be a stellar year.

Add to that some major girl drama (he’s in love with his best friend, Annie, but snogging his roomate’s girlfriend), late night poker games (let’s just say that Ryan Dean is not a good drunk), and lots and lots of testosterone-induced fights. Let’s just say, I was impressed that Ryan Dean — who was decent human being underneath all the 14-year-old boy nonsense — survived until Thanksgiving.

I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I can sum it up in two words: sex and rugby. Actually, the sex is all in Ryan Dean’s mind: he’s incredibly immature, and objectifies EVERY girl, and EVERY situation becomes about sex. In other words: he’s a normal 14-year-old boy. But unlike Carter’s Unfocused One-Track Mind which I couldn’t get through (and which is the best comparison to this one), I found myself endeared to Ryan Dean. Maybe it was the underdog element. Maybe it was because although he was annoying, he was almost mostly harmless. Maybe it was because he really did mean well, in the end.

Because, I found myself compelled by this. I was invested in Ryan Dean’s drama. I loved the camaraderie of the rugby team. I enjoyed Ryan Dean, dork that he was.

My only real problem was with the ending. See: Ryan Dean becomes good friends with the rugby captain, Joey, who also happens to be gay. Joey’s sexuality isn’t a big deal for Ryan Dean (though he feels the need to comment that he isn’t a lot), but it is for other guys in O-Hall. And in the last 20 pages of the book, it takes a sharp left turn and stops being a fun boarding school drama, and becomes Something More. Not that I minded something more, it was the sharp left turn that threw me. It didn’t work. I didn’t feel pain, or anguish, or anything at all at the end, because I was flabbergasted that a fun and entertaining book so suddenly became Serious. It came off as bad pacing and lack of focus rather than anything more substantial.

It didn’t ruin the book for me, but it did take some of the shine off. Which is too bad, because I was having fun with it before then.

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