Famous in a Small Town // by Emma Mills

//published 2019//

In an attempt to keep the TBR from growing even more voraciously, I’m trying to read new books by authors I like as the books are published, instead of just adding them to the TBR to be read at some vague, future, maybe-will-never-happen date.  Consequently, I read Spinning Silver and The Other Wife when they appeared last year, The Suspect last month, and Famous in a Small Town just a couple of weeks ago.

Before this book, my only foray into Mills’ writing was This Adventure Endswhich I read last spring.  I absolutely loved that book (with, of course, a few caveats), and have been meaning to get my hands on another of her books ever since.  While I didn’t enjoy Famous in a Small Town quite as much, there was still a great deal to enjoy.

Sophie is the main character.  Just finishing her junior year in high school, she’s looking forward to a summer of band camp, hanging out with her friends, and enjoying life.  When a new guy moves into town, it’s pretty obvious what direction the story is going to go.  Nonetheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable journey, mainly because Mills has a brilliant talent for writing friends/banter/down time.  I’ve realized that the reason a lot of authors’ characters come through as stiff or inaccessible is because those characters are only doing the things that forward the plot.  But it’s a tricky thing to write, because I also don’t need to hear all the details of every mundane moment in the character’s life, either.  Mills has struck that perfect balance of including just enough regular, everyday conversation and activity to make her characters feel personable and real.  In fact, the banter between this group of friends is really what kept me reading.

The actual story is not one of big thrills and adrenaline-laced twists.  It’s really just some small town life with small town drama, although that being said there was one twist that I did not know was coming and that I thought was done quite well.

Negatives for this one mostly come under the heading of “unnecessary crudity.”  Supposedly these kids were 15, 16, 17 years old, yet they were getting drunk constantly and literally no one acted like this was a big deal.  This honestly bothered me a lot, just because the attitude towards it was so casual.  I understand that there is a fine line in YA between writing “realistically” and writing “edgy.”  But I am a firm believer that fiction should, at some level, be written the way we wish things were.  Constantly reassuring young people that getting trashed, having casual sex, constantly swearing, etc. is normal by portraying it as normal doesn’t seem healthy to me and never will.    While this book wasn’t big on the sex angle, there was a lot of joking around about sex and comments made that seemed unnecessarily crude.  There was also more swearing than I like to see, especially in YA.

However, I do give Mills some credit for portraying at least a couple of happily married couples.  There is a younger couple that Sophie babysits for that I especially loved.  I loved that they had fallen in love in high school, had gotten married, and were raising a family and making adjustments for unexpected changes in their lives – together.  That was so nice to see.

I also really liked the way that Mills portrayed small town life in general.  Usually, fiction either shows it as the most desperately narrow-minded, racist, horrific, backwards way of life possible OR a beautiful utopia comprised of warm, loving people and open doors.  The truth, as most are, is somewhere in the middle – mainly because small towns are generally made up of really regular people.  So yes, you know a lot of people and can find connections immediately, there isn’t a lot to do if you’re big into the theater and fancy restaurants (although if you prefer parks and a fabulous burger you’re all good), you know everyone in your graduating class, and you’re always within a moment’s drive of a cornfield.  But here is what Mills did so well – that life can be both amazingly satisfying and also horribly restrictive.  It depends on who you are.  Not everyone in a small town loves living there, but some people do.  And I felt like Mills captured the fact that not everyone is counting down the days until they can shake the dust off their feet and leave home.  Some of us actually enjoy our roots.

All in all, Famous in a Small Town was worth the read, but it isn’t one I would read again.  It’s on that line between 3.5 and 4*.  I still want to get through any other books Mills has written, and while I’m at it, I really need to read This Adventure Ends again as well.