After my fourth successful interaction with a Kasie West novel, I’m ready to say it officially: I’m a fan. The Distance Between Us was a surprisingly charming contemporary romance, Pivot Point and its sequel, Split Second, were suspenseful, vaguely mind-trippy sci-fi adventures, and now there’s On The Fence, which is the epitome of the perfect YA contemporary story. The main character, Charlie, is a tomboy who grew up without her mother, surrounded by the influence of three older brothers and a close neighbor, Braden. But Charlie’s at an age where being a tomboy is becoming a bit confusing for her. She is really missing female connections, and more and more she begins to realize she’s still not really over the death of her mother ten years prior.
When Charlie is forced to take a part time job, she accidentally makes her first real female friend, who happens to be about as girlie as possible. She exposes an extremely hesitant Charlie to fashion, make-up and boys – but this is not a “makeover” story – this is just a catalyst for Charlie to reassess who she wants to be. And then there are Charlie’s late night chats with Braden along the fence separating their backyards. During these conversations Charlie begins to realize her feelings for Braden are complicated, and he helps her understand some deep-seeded issues pertaining to her mother’s death.
On the Fence is a true coming-of-age story, and I loved how Charlie’s character progression wasn’t cliché or expected – West made some unique choices with Charlie, and I really enjoyed that she avoided forcing Charlie into a specific mold. Instead, Charlie grew slowly and organically, gradually figuring herself out, and she felt much more realistic and relatable as a result. Most teenagers don’t fit into one specific “type,” and Charlie really embodies that struggle of wanting to fit in but also wanting to be comfortable in your own skin.
While I enjoyed the slow evolution of Charlie’s relationship with Braden, it did seem to come just a bit too easy in the end. I would have liked to have seen a bit more awkwardness and uncertainty, because I feel like that’s almost a necessity in these best-friends-become-boyfriends stories. Has this ever happened in real life without significant awkwardness at the onset of the relationship? But that’s a minor gripe, really – West makes up for it by stretching out the build-up and establishing a clear dynamic between her characters that gives readers something to root for, even when other potential romantic interests are introduced.
Stories about death, and specifically parental/sibling death, are a dime a dozen in YA, but I liked how On The Fence looked at it from a little different angle. While there was some focus on Charlie healing after her mother’s death, the story was really more about how Charlie’s life was shaped by the dominant male influence in her life. One of my favorite threads of this story was Charlie’s father’s sweet ongoing attempts to help her out with “girl things” despite being completely uncomfortable doing it. I also enjoyed Charlie’s lamentations about how different she might be had she grown up with a mother –exploring how much of Charlie’s personality is her and how much is a result of her unconventional upbringing – and I really enjoyed that thoughtful aspect of the story.
West pulled a bit of a Sarah Dessen, tying this story together slightly with The Distance Between Us by including some crossover characters and locations. I’m still on the fence (heh!) about this practice, which seems more and more common in YA contemporary books. These little crossovers rarely add anything to the story, they just seem to be there as a bit of fan service. It actually takes me out of the story a little because it often seems forced, but I guess if that’s what sells books or pleases fans, who am I to whine about it?
But ultimately, On The Fence executes so many YA themes so well, with West effortlessly weaving together various plot threads to come up with a perfect little story of personal discovery. When I finished On The Fence, I was left with this overall impression: