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Return to Me: Justina Chen

Book: Return to Me
Author: Justina Chen
Pages: 352
Age Range: 12 and up

Justina Chen's Return to Me is a coming of age novel about 18-year-old Rebecca (Reb) Muir. Reb is headed off to Columbia in September, planning to start down the path to becoming a corporate architect as quickly as she can. Her plans are derailed, however, when her beloved father abandons the family for his young mistress. The demolition of her family and the threat to her college funding send Reb on a journey of self-discovery, one that parallels (but is different from) her mother's. 

I found Return to Me to be an enjoyable read. I liked Reb and the people in her support network (especially her unabashedly nerdy younger brother). I loved Reb's obsession with treehouses and other small, nurturing spaces. I appreciated the detail of two very different island settings in the book, and I liked the emphasis on architecture. I found it refreshing to see a book for teens that treats the choice of college and careers as more important than the choice of boyfriend. I flagged a number of inspirational passages about finding and following one's passion in life. Like this:

"You know. In here." Grandma tapped her heart and then pointed at mine, as though she knew I was asking about myself. "Trust your instinct, Reb. No amount of planning is going to confirm what your gut can, especially when life changes our best, most detailed plans. When your passion and your power collide, that's when you know you're on the right path."

"Passion and power?" I asked, not understanding.

"When what you love intersects with what you're good at. And when that happens, you have to lean into your calling, even if people think you're absolutely crazy." (Chapter Twenty-Eight)

and this:

"This is what women do when they defend their dreams. They pick their way through their own sharp-edged doubts and swim through the sea of skepticism. They remember that nothing and no one can turn them into powerless victims--not reneged vows, not betrayals that have ricocheted them from one ed of the country to the other.

This is what women do.

They speak." (Chapter Thirty-Six)

But here's the thing. I know Justina Chen. I know that she's a co-founder of Readergirlz, an organization dedicated to empowering teenage girls through helping them find literary role models. I know that Justina is passionate about helping girls to become the best selves that they can be. This comes through in Justina's other books, too (see my reviews of Girl Overboard and North of Beautiful). This is obviously an admirable goal. But for me, in the case of Return to Me, I think that the message overwhelmed the story a bit.

Return to Me towards the end feels a bit like a manual for finding oneself, rather than a novel about a teenage girl. While I think it's a useful manual, one that I would like the teenage girls in my life to read, I also think that this aspect has a detrimental impact on the pacing of the book. There were several places where I thought that the book was about to end, and then it continued (always disconcerting). The more personal plotlines (to do with Reb's relationships with her mother, father, and boyfriend) wrap up earlier than the career choice plotlines, and that made the pacing feel off to me, too.

Don't get me wrong. I liked Return to Me. I would recommend it for teenage girls, particularly those who are struggling with what to do with their lives, and/or those who are coping with a family divorce. But I think that it could have been edited to make the later part of the book a bit tighter and to scale back the intensity of the message. I'll be interested to hear what other people think. 

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (@LBKids)
Publication Date: January 15, 2013
Source of Book: Digital review copy from the publisher

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