‘Sup readers? It’s time for this week’s On The Shelf column: I pick a newly-released book and tell you whether or not its content (not its cover) is commendable enough to score space on your crowded shelf, or if you’re better off with the e-book version.
This week’s book was standalone YA contemporary novel Fireworks, by New York Times bestselling author Katie Cotugno (99 Days, How To Love). I actually broke the golden rule of this column and bought the physical copy (a gorgeous hardback. Seriously, the design team did a fantastic job) instead of trying it out on my e-reader first, because the summary called out to me like a personalized chocolate egg, and I was sure I would love it. I think I’ve admitted to being the only person on the planet who liked 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats, and bands— any kind of band. Whether it’s a girl band, a boy band, a rock band, or a band of travelling minstrels— have such a fascinating, weird dynamic to me that even (especially, who am I kidding?) fictionalized musical groups are enticing to read about.
Set in the 1990s, Fireworks follows Dana Cartwright, a level-headed 18-year-old from a Podunk town called Jessell, where everyone and everything is predictable in that claustrophobic “I-can-see-your-future-and-it-involves-never-leaving-this-place-just-like-your-mom” way. Dana has more or less accepted her vacuum-sealed fate, because she’s known from the time they were little kids that her best friend Olivia is the one destined for all things bigger and better. Olivia, a girl with her eyes on Hollywood as the prize, is Dana’s complete opposite: she’s a sheltered princess, a damsel in distress, while Dana is more likely to be the brash hero, charging in to save the day.
Over the summer— Dana knows it will be their last one together. Olivia will be going to college in the fall. Dana will be staying behind in Jessell, stuck with the sameness she’s had her whole life— Olivia auditions to be in the girl group of successful music producer Guy Monroe, and drags Dana along for the ride. Somehow, Dana ends up being put on the spot to audition (it’s not like she’s seriously trying, or anything) and when Olivia gets the call that she’s made the final cut, Dana is excited until she finds out that— oh, crap. Way to rain on Olivia’s parade— she’s been picked too. But flying out to Orlando as one fourth of the latest (and hopefully soon-to-be-greatest) girl group in the nation is a lot more appealing than deferring to spend the rest of her life in Jessell. Plus, Olivia’s (mostly) excited for her, and it’s kind of amazing that they’re going to go on an adventure together, after all.
But the pressures of almost-fame, vicious gossip, rampant backstabbery, and a burgeoning love with the star of a beloved boy band (a guy who Olivia already knows and has referred to as her “Prince Charming,” since middle school) have spread Dana and Olivia’s formerly-rock-solid friendship so thin, that it’s threatening to snap. The price of fame is high, and Dana, who’s faded into the background for Olivia’s sake her entire life, must decide what it will cost her.
Fireworks is my first experience with Cotugno’s writing, and I was pleasantly surprised. Her dialogue is conversational, her characters realistic (I have known people like Olivia and Dana both), and her plot absurdly fun while being rife with the sort of drama you’d expect from a high-stakes contemporary involving four teenage girls thrown together to sing in harmony. Even the love interest, Alex, who’s so vanilla that he could make Arrowroot cookies jealous, hits the right note by being supportive (if just a little too perfect) yet determined.
Dana, as a main character, isn’t entirely likeable, and this is where Cotugno works absolute magic. Throughout almost the whole of Fireworks, Dana has a chip on her shoulder the size of the Shanghai Tower, and a prickly wall of self-defence to match. Thanks to her rough upbringing, the fact that she feels like an oafish black sheep next to three other girls who have been honing their skills since they were still in training pants, and a deep-rooted fear of ending up back in Jessell, where she suspects she belongs, she’s in a rut. She feels inferior, like a charity case, and it causes her to act and react like the proverbial poked bear: snarly, snappish, and sullen. But it’s completely understandable. Dana may not always be the most clear-thinking of protagonists, but her behaviour is not without cause (which doesn’t automatically make it right). Cotugno gave Dana rough edges and teeth and claws, showed us why, and then oh-so-slowly had her grow and change. It takes a special kind of author to work with that, to polish something that rough and expose the diamond within.
I enjoyed the overall atmosphere and found the 90s references charming (even if I didn’t quite “get” most of them without a quick Google search). Friendship isn’t really something that gets too much of a spotlight in books (YA especially. The romance seems to take over), and to see that the ups and downs are consistent throughout the decades is kind of nice.
But this book isn’t without its faults. For all her surliness, Dana is Olivia’s fool, to the point where even Olivia’s mother expects her to be a babysitter because Dana is “the strong one.” Olivia is weak, but also a chameleon whose spots don’t really change; there were times I wanted to slap her in the face. With a frying pan. I can understand why Dana’s loyalty was unshakeable in the beginning, what I don’t understand is why it stayed that way. There’s being the best friend on Planet Earth, then there’s being a sucker. Fool me once, shame on me for being an idiot, fool me for the thousandth freaking time over the course of a 324-page novel, you’re getting a cast-iron frying pan to the face. This might be a good thing, a testament to Cotugno’s skills as a writer. If I didn’t care about the characters, I wouldn’t have been invested in the book.
Though it had some lows, its highs ultimately triumphed, making the bittersweet whirlwind that is Fireworks a sure bet on the shelf. If this wild ride sounds fun to you, you can check it out here.