The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando (website | twitter)
Publication Date: March 7, 2006
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: loss of a family member, summer job, New Jersey setting
Format read: Paperback borrowed from library
Summary: After her mom passes away, Betsy challenges herself to get through the stages of grief in one summer. Her family is falling apart and a betrayal makes her suddenly single and best friendless, Betsy embarks on a summer job at a colonial village and begins to make new friends. At the same time, questioning her own self-worth, the memories of her mother, and her own passions.
In a multitude of books I’ve read so far this year, the death of a parent is a major plot point. A lot of the times the book is about the death of a mother (like The Survival Kit and You Have Seven Messages). It’s understandable. A daughter and her mother share an unparalleled connection — whether it’s good or bad. A mother is instrumental in the growth of her daughter, especially when she’s in her teenage years trying to figure out who she is and sort of rebelling against all she’s known. Mothers are supposed to be a constant and when they aren’t… there’s a tremendous amount of clashing emotions.
In Betsy’s case, her dad takes a backseat in the lives of his kids when his wife dies. They don’t talk about her, they feast on fast food; everyone is living in their own bubble, barely co-existing. Betsy is angry about that. She’s upset about it and yet she lacks the solution to this problem. How can she bridge this gap between her and her father? Her and her younger brother? Betsy also thinks she is “damaged goods”. Who could love her? Her boyfriend betrays her, so does her best friend (not in the way you think) and she has no mother. It’s the perfect summer to get a new job with new people and new responsibilities. She needs a fresh start in the worst way.
POH is meant to be taken very slowly. Altebrando’s writing is full of realistic, quotable quips and so much depth and emotion. I can’t pinpoint exactly why but the entire book had an old-school YA vibe while at the same time, felt rather adult. You could feel how Betsy was directionless, and I loved the inclusion of this colonial village she was working in. Every day she could escape to this simplier time, play someone who wasn’t herself (even though she wasn’t so good at it in the beginning), and discover things about herself without even realizing it.
Unlike a bunch of YA characters, Betsy wasn’t great at just one thing. In fact, her mother was always asking her about her passions. What was she passionate about? And Betsy just didn’t have a clue. But she wasn’t obsessively searching for it either. I liked Betsy’s cautiousness. I even liked when she messed up sometimes. She had flaws. She had secrets. She had judgements about people and learned to look past them. It was all about baby steps.
Don’t worry. There is a little romance. But what I love, absolutely love, is that it doesn’t appear because it has to, and it’s not an instant love or anything even close to it. Betsy’s affection for James is eased into, and has a bit of mystery to it. I can honestly say I didn’t know how to feel about him and I really liked that. It felt like I was experiencing the frustration and the sweetness along with her. (Plus this led to a Seaside Heights scene, setting of Jersey Shore — yuck — but where I spent many family vacations as a kid.)
Overall, I loved the characters in this novel. I loved the feel of the story, and the relationship dynamics (great sibling!). There are many layers to POH and it felt like each story received the attention it deserved. It always felt down-to-earth even when life turned into a bit of a drama fest for our main character. I so enjoyed her growth and getting to know her. I hope you do too.
P.S. I’m not normally a fan of Kristen Stewart but for some reason, I could not stop picturing Betsy as KS.