Review: Famous Last Words

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Famous Last WordsFamous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Published by Henry Holt BFYR on July 2, 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 288
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher

In Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski, sixteen-year-old Samantha D’Angelo has death on the brain. Her summer internship at the local newspaper has her writing obituaries instead of soaking up the sun at the beach. Between Shelby, Sam’s boy-crazy best friend; her boss Harry, a true-blue newspaper man; and AJ, her fellow “intern scum” (aka the cute drummer for a band called Love Gas), Sam has her hands full. But once she figures out what—or who—is the best part of her summer, will she mess it all up?

As Sam learns her way around both the news room and the real world, she starts to make some momentous realizations about politics, ethics, her family, romance, and most important—herself.

First Sentence: “Samantha Elisabeth D’Angelo, the Herald Tribune‘s youngest-ever obituary writer, died Friday.”

This is my second experience with Jennifer Salvato Doktorski in as many months. In a lot of ways, her sophomore novel is much like her first, with similar strengths and weaknesses. Both novels exhibit a lot of promise, but left me vaguely irritated and unsettled at some of the themes and messages throughout. Famous Last Words is an improvement on How My Summer Went Up in Flames, with a slightly more likable heroine and the delightful focus on Sam’s summer job.

The best part, and what makes Famous Last Words stand out from the bulk of YA offerings is that t he main plot deals with Sam’s job. At 16 going on 17, she’s got a summer job as a paid intern at the Herald Tribune. She doesn’t get to do much but write obits and fetch coffee, but the excitement of the newsroom delights her. In fact, she’s much happier working late nights and crazy hours at the newspaper than dealing with other teens in high school.

Sam has quite the work ethic, though that is in part due to her desire to avoid thinking about other things, like her problems with her best friend, boys, and college. Getting caught up in the mystery of the case against the mayor, who seems to be doing something illicit, Sam assists the actual reporters and does some amateur detective work. Through her job at the newspaper, she discovers a passion she didn’t realize she had – for writing and for life. Writing obits makes her realize how important it is to truly live. I love that the newspaper work isn’t something in the background here at all; it’s in the forefront and Doktorski really delves into the process and the problems facing the newspaper industry today.

As with How My Summer Went Up in Flames, I’m also largely impressed with Doktorski’s characterization and writing. Most of the characters feel very authentic and human, with the little quirks that really make them feel alive. My personal favorite is definitely Sam’s sassy grandma and her touching stories about Sam’s late grandfather.

However, Sam has a lot of the troublesome qualities that made Rosie such a frustrating heroine in How My Summer Went Up in Flames, though I do not think Sam’s quite as hateful. Both Sam and Rosie are judgmental, jealous of any girl who talks to a boy they have any sort of interest in, and terrible friends. One of the main focuses of the book is the deteriorating friendship between Sam and Shelby. Sam has a lot of legitimate reasons to be mad at Shelby: the way Shelby wants Sam to be someone she’s not, the way Shelby ignored Sam for a boyfriend, and the way that Shelby abandons Sam at parties. Instead, Sam gets mad about other things; Shelby’s drinking and flirtatiousness, and the possible damage to her reputation (love that subtle slut-shaming).

Meanwhile, Sam turns into a puddle of goo at the feet of an obviously obnoxious guy just because he has a pretty face, much like Rosie did over and over again. For all her judgment of Shelby for flirting with guys, Sam tries (though she pretends to be in ignorance of what she’s doing) to string two guys along during the summer. She’s single and has every right to do it, but so is Shelby free to do what she wants. Since Sam doesn’t respect Shelby, I don’t respect Sam. The actual romance in Famous Last Words is cute, but I was so irritated by Sam I didn’t feel like she deserved the nice guy she got, because she learned very little. She does determine to do some more work on her relationship with Shelby, but her sense of elitism over the drunken, popular, pretty people never dissipates in the slightest.

Running through both of Doktorski’s books is an intense distaste for underage drinking, and perhaps any drinking at all. The “good” characters almost never drink in both. While I’m not saying underage drinking or perpetual drunkenness is admirable, arguing, even through fiction, for such abstinence education is silly; we all know how the prohibition turned out. Neither Rosie nor Sam has, to my knowledge, a reason to be so anti-drinking, like a family member who suffers from alcoholism or was killed by a drunk driver. It just seems very out of place and preachy.

Both Sam and Rosie seem like believable people, and they are well-characterized. At the same time, they’re not likable, at least for me. Of course, unlikable characters can be pulled off admirably, but my issue here is that I do not think that either was meant to be perceived as unlikable by the reader. The other characters generally seem to find them charming, and any hate they get is because they’re too cool or talented and the other person is jealous. The fact that the two are so similar also seems a weakness.

My second experience with Jennifer Salvato Doktorski leaves me still convinced that she can do great things as a writer, but that she’s not there yet. The continual themes of hatred of other women, of drinking and of slut-shaming bog down otherwise incredibly fun books. If you want to try Doktorski, I would recommend Famous Last Words over How My Summer Went Up in Flames.

Favorite Quote:

“Do I look angry? People are always doing that to me—telling me to smile, asking me what’s wrong, when I’m perfectly content. I just have a pouty-shaped mouth, that’s all.”

6 responses to “Review: Famous Last Words”

  1. That’s my biggest problem with unlikeable characters; I can only like the books their in if they don’t get all the narrative rewards at the end. Flawed characters are good only when paired with consequences.

    Love that excerpt, though. I’m all the time telling people “no, I’m not mad, that’s just my face.”

    • Christina says:

      My biggest problem is when I think they’re MEANT to likable. I think that’s why she didn’t change much. From what I can tell, I’m meant to be on her side, but I’m really not.

      That is also my life. Old men especially like to tell me to smile. Or people say that I’m angry when I’m just zoning out. My neutral face looks grumpy. Not my fault.

  2. Megan K. says:

    For some reason, I find this cover extremely adorkable. I do like the sound of how different this is, but eh – I’m sorry you didn’t find Sam that likable. I doubt I would either. I mean, jealous JUST because a girl was talking to a guy you’re interested in? That’s a bit much. I can totally relate to her about the pouty-shaped mouth thing, though. I have a really thick lower lip, so it always looks like I’m pouting when I’m actually not. LOL. Great review!

    • Christina says:

      I’m not a fan of the mixture of real life and animation, but I can totally see where it would appeal to people who aren’t creeped out by that mixture. Yeah, she’s sort of got guys marked out as her property, and gets irrationally jealous, when she doesn’t even know which one she wants. Of course, I was sort of like that as a teen, but oy. I have a naturally pouty face too.

  3. I definitely want to read both this and How My Summer Went Up In Flames but it is annoying when authors take the drinking/having sex/smoking/whatever to the point where if someone engages in the activity they are a bad person. They may be bad choices but they aren’t bad people. I’ve always thought it was a bad idea for teachers/parents/whomever to only teach “don’t do it” rather than “do it responsibly.” Telling me NOT to do something makes me want to do it more.

    The newspaper job makes this book look super cute so I’m really glad that that part worked for you. Also I love Sassy grandmas!

    • Christina says:

      Agreed. I’m unsure whether Doktorski meant those themes in these books, but both of her heroines are super opposed to drinking and are slut-shamers, which is super unfortunate. Putting an emphasis on moderation would make more sense to me. Enjoying a beer at a party doesn’t make someone a worse person than a teetotaler. Also, yes, teens will just want it more; adults too.

      The newspaper stuff was awesome and so was grandma!

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