If He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin <website | twitter>
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: boy next door, childhood best friends, friends growing apart, tragic love story
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)
Summary: Autumn and Finn are next door neighbors; they’ve always been best friends — experiencing everything together since their mothers are also best friends. Once they reach high school, these once inseparable friends are distant and barely speaking. Though they aren’t close anymore, Autumn still finds herself knowing exactly where Finn is in a room and watching him from afar — in love with him, even if it takes her a while to admit it.
So there’s a girl (Autumn) who lives next to a boy (Phineas, or Finn for short). They were born mere weeks apart and their mothers are best friends. They have dinners together, alternate celebrating holidays at each others’ houses, and know practically every detail about the other person. From Autumn’s point of view (from which If He Had Been With Me is told), we see Finn as a strong, popular, kind, slightly geeky but athletically talented boy. Autumn is his opposite in nearly every way. She’s not popular and stands out amongst the crowd for experimenting with her hair color, dressing a bit oddly, and wearing a tiara as an every day accessory. She’s a misfit.
Somewhere along the way (oh, about the end of middle school) these two inseparable friends grow apart. As they enter high school, their lives still intermingle because their family traditions and weekly dinners continue, but they timidly orbit around one another. Finn and Autumn make independent groups of friends and they rarely talk with the same ease and candor they had been able to. By all appearances, these two friends seem to have drifted apart.
But from Autumn’s perspective, we see how she still yearns for him to do well, silently cheering him on, and how she’s jealous when Finn begins dating someone (even though she, too, is in a relationship). Every piece of their history is so intertwined that I couldn’t help but root them on. I wanted these two best friends to make their way back to one another and fall in love, despite knowing from the very beginning how their story would end — quite tragically.
I promise I’m not ruining any surprises by sharing that Phineas dies in the opening pages of If He Had Been With Me (even the Goodreads summary shares this in the first sentence). Then we hop, skip, and jump back in time to meet these two characters as babies and their history unfolds. I was a bit concerned because I didn’t want what I knew happened to Finn to actually happen, but let me tell you friends, Laura Nowlin absolutely blew me away with her amazing storytelling, character development, and rich settings.
Time and again, I feel let down by YA books because parents are absent in stories (but not here, even if Autumn’s parents have some marital issues they need to work through). Or because heavy issue books seem to dissuade cautious readers from picking up the book (but not here, because even though depression is present and very much plays a role in the story, Nowlin worked it into the story in a way that made me reflect and think, “OH! How clever!” instead of “Oh, I know where this is going…”). And sometimes I’m frustrated because it’s just so hard to connect with characters because I don’t know anything about them and their decisions make zero sense to me because of that (but again, that doesn’t happen here because I felt like I knew absolutely every detail, thought, and memory of these characters).
And the writing. Oh, the writing. So perfect and poetic. I felt like I was reading snippets of Autumn’s personal journal and I couldn’t put it down. Despite that I knew there was a *Romeo and Juliet-esque / tragic love story ending, I couldn’t help but allow myself to be swept away by Autumn and Finn’s story. There really wasn’t anything that I didn’t love, though oddly enough, I was maybe a little caught off guard by the ending. I’m not spoiling anything, but I was surprised by how I thought I knew what was coming and Nowlin still threw in a few punches at the end that left me blink, blink, blinking at my kindle screen. (So be prepared!)
I enjoyed If He had Been With Me so much that I’m adding Laura Nowlin to my auto-read list. Her writing, you guys, is just that sublime. Definitely take a chance on this story — allow yourselves to be caught up in Autumn and Finn’s lives and to root for two childhood best friends to fall in love.
*Please note: I don’t mean to imply that this is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but I’m merely comparing the stories because even though we know how R & J’s tragic story ends, we still love and appreciate the story for all it’s complexity, beautiful writing, and passion — much in the same way I felt about If He Had Been With Me. Don’t make any assumptions about IHHBWM’s plot, storyline, etc. because of my comparison.