Review: Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche

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: Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarcheDon't Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche
Narrator: Adenrele Ojo
Length: 9 hrs, 1 min
Published by Listening Library on September 1, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Source: Publisher
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four-half-stars

Michelle and her little siblings Cass and Denny are African-American and living on the poverty line in urban Baltimore, struggling to keep it together with their mom in jail and only Michelle’s part-time job at the Taco Bell to sustain them.

Leah and her stepbrother Tim are white and middle class from suburban Maryland, with few worries beyond winning lacrosse games and getting college applications in on time.

Michelle and Leah only have one thing in common: Buck Devereaux, the biological father who abandoned them when they were little.

After news trickles back to them that Buck is dying, they make the uneasy decision to drive across country to his hospice in California. Leah hopes for closure; Michelle just wants to give him a piece of her mind.

Five people in a failing, old station wagon, living off free samples at food courts across America, and the most pressing question on Michelle’s mind is: Who will break down first--herself or the car? All the signs tell her they won’t make it. But Michelle has heard that her whole life, and it’s never stopped her before....

Una LaMarche triumphs once again with this rare and compassionate look at how racial and social privilege affects one family in crisis in both subtle and astonishing ways.

All of Una LaMarche’s books just got audiobook versions in September, coinciding with the release of Don’t Fail Me Now. I’d been curious about LaMarche’s books, but, since I didn’t have review copies, I’d not gotten around to trying any of them yet; I realize how pompous that sounds but my schedule is my schedule. As such, I was thrilled when they showed up in the Penguin Random House audiobook emails. First, I listened to Like No Other, which surprised me with its sweetness and intensity. Having read Don’t Fail Me Now, I am just so impressed with LaMarche’s talent because, while being a totally different topic and subject matter, she brings the same talent to bear for another beautiful story.

Like No Other and Don’t Fail Me Now have a lot in common: diversity, heart, teens that act like teens (in ways that you sometimes want to shake them for because you love them and things clearly will not end well), and a strong focus on family (either the one you’re born to and the one you choose). Though the characters and voices and circumstances differ greatly, there’s a thoughtful, respectful, touching core that feels the same between the two novels. LaMarche has really blown me away.

Don’t Fail Me Now opens with Michelle and her siblings Cass and Denny in jail. Their mom has been arrested, once again, for drug use and possession. Michelle, the oldest, is trying to hold things together, trying to figure out how to keep child protective services from taking them and separating them. Michelle has spent a lot of her life being the most responsible person in the family, and she’s already considering whether she should become the official guardian for her younger siblings when she turns eighteen.

Michelle has a really hard life, and that bit there was really just the start of it. Their dad (Michelle’s and Cass’ biologically, but they also pretend he’s Denny’s dad too to make things easier on the kid since they don’t know who his dad is) left them when Cass was just a baby, abandoning them for the woman he was having an affair with and his other daughter. Now that their mom has been arrested again, they have no one to turn to but their money-grubbing aunt, who is charging them rent so high they can’t afford to pay it and also drive to school (illegally since Michelle isn’t supposed to drive with minors in the car yet) off just Michelle’s Taco Bell paycheck. Not to mention that her mom wants Michelle to post her $4000 bail. Things are bad, and that’s still not all.

Cass is being bullied in school, insulted for sexuality. Michelle had no idea until she witnessed it, because her sister’s so quiet, and she’s not sure if that’s true or not; obviously, she doesn’t care what Cass’ sexuality is because she loves her sister and is a good person. Michelle does worry about Cass, but she doesn’t know how to handle the situation, especially since she’s focused on making sure they can eat and have a place to live. Meanwhile, Denny’s being kicked out of his school because he’s so disruptive. The school thinks he needs to go to a school where he’ll get special attention to suit his needs. It’s not clear what’s up with Denny but he clearly requires special teaching, which Michelle doesn’t know how to handle either, especially without money. Then there’s the news that deadbeat, druggie, disappearing dad Buck Deveraux is dying, which comes from the white stepbrother of Michelle’s half sister, the one the dad left Michelle’s family for.

With all of this, I’d expect Don’t Fail Me Now to be one of those relentlessly depressing books where nothing good ever happens, but it isn’t. For all that everything is falling apart in Michelle’s life, there’s a sweetness and lightness to it too. Yes, things are terrible and you will feel so fucking sad for Michelle, Cass, and Denny, because they have been dealt a rotten hand in life and they’re such great people. At the same time, though, they tell jokes and love one another fiercely, and you’ll end up smiling too. I’ve never been moved by those books that imply that when things are sad, that’s all they are; I find myself laughing every time a new catastrophe hits. When the characters keep trying to laugh in the face of danger and remain hopeful despite the crap, I get hit really hard by the emotions.

The one place I struggled with Don’t Fail Me Now was the road trip. I totally get why Michelle decided to take her siblings and gtfo in a quest to see Buck. Sure, odds are against him having anything to offer them in their dire straits, but she doesn’t know what else to do. Cass goes along with the cross-country (Maryland to California) drive in a beat up old car with weird rattles and probably not enough money because anything’s better than facing school. Denny’s a little kid and just thinks it sounds fun. What I don’t get is why Leah (half-sister) and Tim (half-sister’s stepbrother) decide that this sounds like a good idea. It’s obviously a ride with the hot mess express. I just don’t think they would have agreed to that, nor did the initial description or the reaction of their parents really seem consistent with the people that we meet at the end of the book.

That said, the road trip itself is great. All of the fighting and the bonding is on point. Sure, they’re mostly all related by blood somehow (except for Tim), Don’t Fail Me Now hits the found family trope for me. Blood isn’t the greatest indicator for being good friends. It’s against the odds that they will come together the way they do. Michelle has to check Leah and Tim are the middle class white kid privilege a lot and the dynamics have to be worked out, but there’s something really magical that happens here. I especially love the way they all work together to make sure they can get enough gas and food to survive the sojourn.

The romance reminds me of Like No Other a bit. Tim and Michelle are pretty cute together, but there’s also just something SO young and teen about it. That’s a good thing, but it’s also not a thing that I ship particularly. They very much fall into that instalove place because youthful naivete and first feelings and all of that. I’m not sure if they’ll work things out in the future, but I am glad that Michelle has him for right now because she could use something happy and cute in her life, and a romance with Tim fits the bill. I do wish that, in the romance, and everything else too, that Don’t Fail Me Now had gone just a little bit further, rather than ending where it did.View Spoiler »

Now I just need to acquire a print copy of LaMarche’s debut Five Summers because I didn’t care for that audiobook narrator. If you’ve not given LaMarche a try yet, you very much need to, especially if you’re a proponent of diverse books, which every good person is obviously.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 gif road trip tears modern family
Like this, but with laughter too and also diversity and more people

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