Title: You Take It From Here
Author: Pamela Ribon
Publisher: Gallery Books
Other Reviews for this Author: None
I feel like this review should come with a warning. Cancer books inevitably make me cry, so please remember that before I talk about my emotional reaction to this book.
My foray into adult literary/contemporary fiction is always an interesting one. The themes that are often present in these books give me mixed emotions, as the novelist often tries to make things complex and meaningful while staying away from obvious cliches. The trouble is that cliches are often born of common truths and/or experiences that resonate with people. You Take It From Here is an adult contemporary novel that embraces the cliches of the traditional "woman with cancer" novel by making fun of them via a very unique central friendship. Sometimes it misses the mark and veers too far away from its goals as a novel, but other times it shows moments of brilliance. You Take It From Here is a very particular take on the story of one woman whose best friend is overbearing,
Danielle Meyers has never been a true-blue southern woman, yet she's lived with one as her best friend since she was a teenager. Danielle moved down to the south and became the new girl, but right away she fell into a friendship with Smidge. Smidge was unlike any other girl that Danielle knew in that she was brutally honest about everything. Her first words to Danielle were about the unfortunate state of her hair. They were friends ever since. To Danielle, Smidge represented the mother figure that she no longer had. She even took the place of Danielle's father, who thought Danielle so independent that their relationship never gained the true intimacy of the parent and child. Danielle was Smidge's lifeboat in many ways as well, making up for a home life that was far from perfect.
History. That's what Danielle has with Smidge. Every part of her high school life involved Smidge. Smidge was never one to stop being possessive, either, and their friendship never ceased as Danielle moved out of the south and tumbled into a job on the west coast. Both women found love and got married, never once drifting apart due to the men that entered their lives. Smidge and Danielle were known for being attached, for being each others' priority in any situation. Growing up but never growing apart seemed like the dream, but the simplicity of their high school days left them as life's more stressful moments began to take hold. Smidge had to deal with cancer. Danielle had to deal with a divorce. The disease and the divorce tested their friendship, yet they never truly parted from each other.
Life calmed down. Danielle, after officially being divorced for several years, finally returned to the town where she spent most of her teenage years. Smidge never left, knowing full well that she preferred being in a place where people knew that she was a force to be reckoned with right away. Danielle came to grab Smidge and head off to their yearly vacation, which they had long made a tradition. A cruise. A month rebuilding a South American city hit by a natural disaster. They spent their summers together in attempts to help the world and help their friendship. This most recent vacation, unbeknownst to Danielle, has more behind it than usual. Smidge simply commanded her to drive her car cross-country to an undisclosed location. Danielle has no idea that Smidge's plans for their summer do not involve rebuilding destroyed countries or pretending to be a lesbian couple on a cruise ship. Instead, Smidge plans on telling her something that will alter the course of their friendship forever.
The construct of the narrative in You Take It From Here is one that is hard to get into at first, yet it's an extremely personal first-person viewpoint from Danielle's perspective. She writes this all in letter form to Smidge's daughter, who is a young teenager at the time of the events in the story. Everything about the narrative admits that there is bias in observation and a lot of personal character psychology embedded into the situations. Yet, what is most strange is that Danielle's narrative almost turns Smidge into the main character despite the first person. Ribon's narrative style makes it impossible not to consider Smidge and Danielle as equal protagonists in You Take It From Here. Danielle, however, is the narrator for a major reason: Smidge is an insanely flawed character that is better observed from the outside. Danielle is a character that's easier to get behind because her experiences and mindset are more relative to the average reader. She never felt like she belonged in the south, moved out west and fell into a career while falling in love. She lived her life without every feeling entirely complete, yet she was content. Many readers can understand that because it's how they would initially define their lives. Danielle is a good personality but is fairly subdued, and her true quirks come out when she's paired with Smidge. She thus acts as Smidge's foil - the calm, centered character needed to remind the reader that Smidge has a level of outside stability in her life that isn't her husband. If there was any issue with Danielle, it was that her character was much too passive in comparison to Smidge. Danielle's narrative gave her every opportunity to be an active character, but her personality was one that gave into Smidge over standing up to her, and that bothered me. Their friendship works and that is written well in the narrative, yet it's hard to get by a very passive character who doesn't fully recognize that she is passive. Smidge is the type of character that gets under the reader's skin easily, and Danielle's character didn't always help to diffuse Smidge's attitude, making it overpower some of the meaning behind the rest of the text.
Then there's Smidge. Smidge is a great example of how to write a character that is extremely subjective; Smidge is subjective to the point where Danielle's own first-person narrative bears remnants of Smidge's viewpoint and bias. It's rather interesting, too, that Ribon uses a character like Smidge to show what it's like to deal with cancer. Smidge is far from any of the traditional cliches in women's fiction. She is no martyr. She is far from perfect. There is nothing extremely tragic about her person or her life because her confidence overrides any feelings of sympathy. People would not think of Smidge as a poor woman who has struggled, but a woman who has fought tooth and nail to survive, her attitude sharp and intense as a result. Smidge has all of the hallmarks of the traditional southern woman, yet they are in conjunction with an attitude that is far from the normal warm southern charm. What does all of this mean in terms of Smidge's imprint on the reader? It means that Smidge is a character the reader will love...and loathe. She is equal parts blessing and curse, so to speak. She permeates every section of the narrative because of the structure and her place in Danielle's life. There is no escaping her presence. Even when Danielle is not physically with Smidge in the narrative, Danielle is thinking about Smidge or talking about a past anecdote dealing with Smidge. Through Danielle, the reader gets to see just how much crap Smidge has gone through in her life, but they also see just how well she has done for herself as a result. Smidge is a person who loves completely and loves hard. Her love is the type of love that borders on psychotic, yet it is endearing and all-encompassing. The reader understands why Danielle is able to accept Smidge's insults because the reader sees the love that stems from them. The reader sees why Smidge's husband adores her and is willing to be the patience to her impulsiveness. Most importantly, the reader sees just why she would clash most with her teenage daughter, a girl who is far too much like Smidge in her adolescence than she realizes.
Ribon ultimately makes this character-focused novel work despite the at times jarring dynamic of Smidge's intensity and Danielle's passivity. She paints the various relationships that Danielle experiences and views in her life with such clarity and wit that the reader can't help but analyze them. Danielle's romance was one of the best, bringing to mind the romance between the main character in Bridesmaids and the sexy Irish cop. The romantic arc wasn't a major focus - that was the friendship between Smidge and Danielle and the stress involving Smidge's attempts at forcing Danielle to live her life for her once she died. What it lacked in focus was made up with in sincerity. There was something so honest about the way Danielle fell in love. It was simple and evolved from one man's attempts at showing her that she needed to focus on someone other than Smidge, yet it also helped show Danielle that she was a strong woman. Her resolve to help her friend in any situation was stronger than any pitiful attempt at keeping her away. Smidge may have had a strong hold on Danielle, yet Danielle made the conscious effort to prioritize Smidge because she mattered to her. No sexy-as-heck man was going to get in the way of it, and that made Danielle shine. There was also the way Smidge's husband was so simply in love with her. Ribon could have easily made Smidge a woman that was partially resented by her husband, yet he was completely devoted to her because he understood the type of person that she was. Strong personality and all. For a book that focused so much on the rough waters of friendship and how some friends - friends like Smidge - can be extremely tough to handle, You Take It From Here was written from a perspective that valued the ultimately true, unwavering love between friends and lovers. The mother-daughter relationship between Smidge and Jenny was the toughest one to read about because it was the one being tested the most by Smidge's disease. The reader slowly comes to understand just how much Smidge loved being a mother; mothering gave Smidge the feeling of rewriting the past, of making up for her emotionally absent mother. Having her life taken from her is what scares Smidge most. Not because she'll die. Smidge doesn't worry about her physical body. She worries that she will lose the chance to make a mark on her daughter in the way that only a loving mother could.
Ribon's writing with You Take It From Here is accomplished. It fits the narrative style well. It's a mixture of reality and humor, blending together into a story that is more funny than it is serious. The format of the narrative left Ribon's writing with some issues, however. Danielle frequently uses anecdotes as a way to show how deeply her friendship with Smidge goes in the story. They prove to be a sensible narrative device because of the purpose of Danielle's letter, for Jenny hadn't heard of all of the stories from her mother, but they make the narrative feel choppy. Not all of the anecdotes have a direct purpose and they don't always move the narrative along. They are, instead, breaks in the main storyline. The frequency of the anecdotes made them slow down the story. Most of the anecdotes served the same purpose in revealing a particular side of tenderness/devotion to the Smidge/Danielle friendship, so the frequency combined with the awkwardness of some of their placements left them to be a device that wasn't utilized as well as it could have been. The main plot involving the return of Smidge's cancer was a touching one to read. It stayed pretty unusual and quirky until the ending, which veered towards the more traditional (or cliche) route. Ribon's humor and her own take on the storyline kept things feeling fresh towards the end, though, and what she did well was showcase just how good Smidge was as a person period. Ribon never defines Smidge's character by the cancer, never turns her into some type of extended metaphor for the life of cancer victims everywhere. The characterization allows the novel's humor to stand out. Ribon is a writer who knows how to work with her format and create a story that is both humorous and meaningful. The problem is that, in this novel, the formatting of the narrative and some of the scenes written in just make the reader lose sight of where the text is going.
You Take It From Here is an example of what I'd like to see more of in women's fiction, even if its storytelling had flaws that bothered me. So much of the humor and seriousness delved from the complex friendships that make up our lives. It went beyond the label of a 'cancer book' while remaining serious in its treatment about how the disease can change someone's life. The main characters had their flaws, but their purpose in the story was well-executed. It reminded me a lot of the film Bridesmaids, actually. Disjointed in parts in relation to the tone it was trying to achieve balance with (humor and seriousness), but fun and something completely different in today's book market. I look forward to reading more from Ribon, even if I didn't think this showcased her talents in the best light.
Cover: It's very simple and evocative. I enjoy the feel of it, but it doesn't really capture the book's tone the way it should.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publicist/publisher for review (Thank you, Rare Bird Lit!)