Review: Through To You by Lauren Barnholdt

Title Through To You
Author Lauren Barnholdt
Published July 8th, 2014 by Simon Pulse
Pages 288 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Romance
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an advance reader copy from the publisher for review (Thanks Simon & Schuster Canada!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

It starts with a scribbled note in class: I like your sparkle. Harper had casually threaded a piece of blue and silver tinsel through her ponytail in honor of school spirit day. And that carefree, corny gesture is what grabs Penn Mattingly’s eye. Penn — resident heartbreaker of the senior class. Reliably unreliable. Trouble with a capital “T.” And okay, smolderingly sexy.

Harper’s surprised by Penn’s attention—and so is Penn. The last thing he needs is a girlfriend. Or even a friend-with-benefits. The note is not supposed to lead to anything.

Oh, but it does. They hang out. They have fun. They talk. They make out. And after a while, it seems like they just click. But Penn and Harper have very different ideas about what relationships look like, in no small part because of their very different family backgrounds. Of course they could talk about these differences — if Penn knew how to talk about feelings.

Harper and Penn understand their attraction is illogical, yet something keeps pulling them together. It’s like a crazy roller coaster — exhilarating, terrifying, and amazing all at once. And neither knows how to stop the ride…

The door to the bathroom opens, and I hear footsteps crossing the floor. A group of girls laughing as they reapply their lipstick. They’re happy and excited.
Like I should be.
But I’m not.
Instead here I am.
Crying in a bathroom stall.
This is how it ends.
And I have no-one to blame but myself.
I saw it coming.
I just couldn’t stop it.

It all started with a note. Four simple words. “I like your sparkle.” What begins as an innocent flirtation soon escalates into something more, however, as two incompatible teenagers are increasingly, inexplicably drawn to one another despite a world of differences and dysfunction. Penn Mattingly doesn’t know why he wrote that note to Harper Fairbanks on that fateful day. Boredom? Curiosity? Whatever the reason, Penn can’t help but continue to seek Harper out, in spite of his absolute disinterest in a serious relationship. An impromptu picnic. A trip to the carnival. Stolen moments between classes. Soon, the two are spending every waking moment together, but Penn is still keeping Harper at arm’s length emotionally. Unwilling to confide in her about the shoulder injury that compromised both his baseball career and his chances at a college scholarship, tensions begin to rise as Penn and Harper unknowingly embark on a roller coaster of emotions complete with mixed signals and insecurity, secrets and betrayal, jealousy and second chances. With passions running high and two hearts in the mix, in a relationship defined by its turbulence and uncertainty, the only thing that Penn and Harper can be sure of is that this road surely leads to only one destination: Heartbreak.

She looks at me, and I can see in her eyes that she wants some reassurance. She wants me to tell her that we’ll talk tomorrow, that me kissing her meant something.
But I can’t give her that.
So instead I just say “See you tomorrow, Harper.”
I watch her walk into the house, until she’s inside safely and has shut the door behind her. I imagine her walking up the stairs, dropping her bag in her room, maybe calling a friend or starting her homework.
It’s all so normal.
And that’s why Harper and I could never work out.
Because she’s normal.
And I’m anything but.

Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. A series of one and two stars reviews on Goodreads. Words of caution from my friends and fellow bloggers. When I first accepted Through To You for review, there was a veritable chorus of detractors warning me not to get my hopes up. Despite all of this, I tried. I really did. I wanted to like this novel, whose premise about a tumultuous teen romance appeared tailor-made for me. Try as I might, however, reading Through To You proved to be little more than a test of my tolerance, my patience, and most importantly, my sanity. I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews. A fledgling writer myself, I appreciate the vast amount of time, energy and care it takes to bring a novel to fruition. That said, I feel it does a disservice both to myself and my readership, however small, if I’m not entirely honest about the books I read and review. I’m not typically one to DNF (‘do not finish’) a book, even if I’m not enjoying it. An eternal optimist, I like to believe that a lacklustre story can always be redeemed, even if it’s at the last possible moment. Unfortunately, this was not true in the case of Through To You. An unoriginal premise featuring the same tired story and the same tired characters with personalities either so flat or so foul as to render it almost unreadable, Lauren Barnholdt’s latest is a novel as distasteful as it is potentially dangerous.

“God, you really are uptight, aren’t you?” Penn asks. He shifts the truck into another gear, and as he does, his hand brushes against my thigh. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but I feel like maybe he did it on purpose.
“No.” I don’t think I’m uptight. Am I uptight? I don’t think I am. But probably people who are uptight don’t realize they’re uptight. Oh God. I might be uptight.”

As an individual, Harper Fairbanks is a practical non-entity for the complete absence of personality she exhibits over the course of the novel. Sure, she’s given the requisite number of quirks and phobias. A Type-A personality. An inexplicable fear of doctors and routine checkups. An alleged love of dance. Unfortunately, these are little more than window dressing on an otherwise structurally unsound house as Harper is nothing more than a cliche, two-dimensional character I’ve encountered an innumerable number of times before. To make matters worse, what few interests and little personality Harper does possess is quickly lost in her pursuit of Penn. Gone is her passion for dance. Gone is any mention of or preparation for her upcoming audition at Ballard. Everything becomes secondary to Penn’s feelings and concerns, further exemplifying the imbalance of power in their already disconcerting relationship. There are few things more disappointing than seeing a female character compromise who she is and lose any semblance of self in the pursuit of a relationship. For his part, Penn is a more memorable character, though not for the reasons one would likely wish. Once the golden boy and star of the high school’s baseball team, Penn Mattingly’s life is suddenly thrown off course when a serious shoulder injury threatens to sideline his baseball career forever. Upset over the loss of a potential sports scholarship, what he perceives as his only chance at attending college, Penn retreats into himself, cutting ties with his former friends on the team and becoming reclusive, bitter and angry. After failing to secure an appointment with the preeminent physician, Dr. Marzetti, Penn considers his last hope at rehabilitation dashed. While Penn’s feelings of hopelessness and anger are justified, realistic and even understandable, there’s a point at which they become tiresome. I wanted to see Penn become a proactive character and to do something, anything, to change his fate. Instead he mopes endlessly and resigns himself to his fate, becoming a reactionary character and making progress and moving forward only when other characters propel him to do so.

Why does everyone have to keep trying?
Why does Harper even want to be around me, when I’m such a mess?
Why doesn’t Jackson just go away, after all the shit I’ve put him through?
Why do people keep pretending there’s hope when there isn’t?
Slam, slam, slam.
I don’t understand why everyone can’t just leave me alone, why people won’t just give up on me when I’ve obviously given up on myself.

The first and most obvious problem with this novel is the glaring lack of originality. Make it unique. Make it sexy. Make it surprising. Make it something. I don’t think I’m asking too much. I’m certainly not expecting miracles. Had the author done no more than reverse the traditional gender roles and cast Penn in the role of the uptight, conscientious rule-follower and Harper as the attitudinal, devil-may-care rebel, I would have been pleased. But no. Instead, Through To You is no more than the average, unremarkable story of Good Girl falls in love with Bad Boy, attempts to ‘save him’ and heartbreak ensues. Tale as old as time. The author does nothing to subvert expectations or make these familiar archetypes her own. Even more frustrating, entire secondary storylines are introduced only to be later dismissed with little profundity or examination. Penn’s alcoholic father, presumably inserted as a means of adding ‘depth’ to his character and justifying his otherwise inexcusable behaviour, is never scrutinized in any significant way, nor are we ever given any closure or finality on this issue. Why is Penn’s father an alcoholic? Why does his family continue to accept his behaviour and act as though nothing is happening? This absence of insight and complexity carries on into other aspects of the story as well, most notable of which is Penn and Harper’s relationship. Being privy to Penn’s thoughts offers no further insight on this topic, either. Contrary to the author’s apparent belief, “God, she’s so sexy” and “God, she’s so adorable” do not a relationship make. While physical attraction is no doubt an important component of any romantic relationship, one is given the distinct impression that Penn knows nothing substantial about Harper, and only continues to pursue her because of how she makes him feel. She doesn’t ask too many questions. She continues to support him despite his poor treatment of her. These characters have nothing absolutely nothing in common apart from a shared adoration of Penn. A relationship that has all the depth and resonance of a stone skipping across a shallow pond, Barnholdt barely scratches the surface of what attracts these two seemingly incompatible strangers. When he isn’t questioning his attraction to Harper, Penn is questioning his pursuit of her, and constantly reiterating his disinterest in a serious relationship. So what does he do? Pursue her anyway, of course! Who needs character growth or personal insight when you can have a variation of the same scene repeated half a dozen times? What little character development we are given occurs hastily within the final one or two pages of the novel and is undoubtedly too little, too late.

I open the door for her, and I can tell she’s impressed. It’s not that I like being chivalrous. It’s just that I learned that if you are chivalrous, you have a better chance of getting what you want. I know that sounds horrible, and it is. But old habits die hard.

When Penn and Harper do spend time together, their interactions follow a very predictable, and very exasperating, pattern. Penn does something wrong. Harper is offended or hurt. Penn apologizes. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. These scenes are as uninspired as they is grating, and given the amount of time Penn spends grovelling for his numerous offences, I’m surprised he didn’t take up permanent residency on the floor. Even worse, Harper loses what little semblance of personality and individuality she once had upon entering into a relationship with Penn. Her love of dance and choreography, admittedly heretofore little more than a stated fact the reader is meant to readily accept with no tangible evidence, are forgotten entirely. Harper sacrifices her will, her self respect, and even her basic common sense in order to pursue a relationship with Penn. She knows they don’t get along. She knows he treats her poorly. But, overtaken with a rush of teenage hormones that would rival a tsunami, she continues to allow herself to be treated with disrespect and accepts treatment that I would not wish upon my worst enemy.

I drive around for a while, not sure where I’m going.
Until, eventually, I end up at the same place I always end up.
At Sienna’s house.
Which is no good.
Not for me.
Not for her.
Not for Harper.
Not for anyone.

The biggest problem? None of this story is even remotely romantic. What purports to be an ‘exhilarating, terrifying, amazing’ contemporary love story is more akin to a cautionary tale against the dangers of entering into an emotionally abusive relationship. No, I don’t think it’s romantic that Penn slept with another girl soon after Penn and Harper’s first kiss because he ‘couldn’t deal’. No, I don’t think it’s romantic that Penn shatters a glass on their first date in a fit of rage. No, I don’t think it’s romantic that Penn seems to have a sordid and unhappy sexual history with every single female character he comes into contact with. No, I don’t think it’s romantic that Harper is constantly worried about saying the wrong thing, for fear that Penn will leave her behind or display one of his frequent, mercurial and often volatile mood swings. I refuse to accept Barnholdt’s attempts to make this ‘love affair’ appear to be anything other than what it is: Abusive, dangerous, and unhealthy. This is not the sort of relationship we should be modelling for young girls and portraying as romantic, exhilarating or remotely desirable.

That’s how it is with the best journeys, I decide. You never know where you’re going to end up until you’re there.
I roll down the window and let the warm summer breeze blow through my hair. Our journey might just be beginning, but I’m already right where I’m supposed to be.

These were, hands down, the longest 288 pages of my life. I can’t count the number of times I picked up this novel only to put it down again out of frustration and disgust. Were a lack of originality, charisma and chemistry Through To You’s only faults, I would have simply dismissed it as not being the right novel for me and moved on. What upsets me most, however, is my concern that this book is potentially dangerous for young, impressionable readers. It romanticizes and excuses behaviour that is unacceptable and undesirable in a romantic partner at best and potentially abusive at worst. Harper’s lack of sense of self and her willingness to compromise her interests, her feelings, and her morals in order to pursue a relationship with Penn is equally troubling. I could not in good conscience recommend Through To You to anyone and now can only wish I could have saved myself from a similar fate.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advanced reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Here’s what some other reviewers had to say about it!

● Hannah @ Paperback Treasures wrote “An emotionally abusive relationship that isn’t addressed as one is kind of a dealbreaker for me, and I cannot consider this a romance.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Nereyda @ Mostly YA Book Obsessed wrote Through To You is a perfect summer read. It’s light and cute and filled with heartwarming moments and great chemistry.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Magan @ Rather Be Reading wrote Through to You was my third novel of Lauren Barnholdt’s to read. My complaints in the past have been that there wasn’t enough depth and character development before the final page was turned. I wanted a higher level of believability. However, those continue to be two of my biggest complaints after completing this novel.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

One Response

  1. Thank you for your honest review.
    I really like it when there are “bad” reviews once in a while. It makes a blog much more believable.
    While I never heard of this book before it just sounds like something I wouldn’t want to read.

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!