Review – (Never) Again by Theresa Paolo


Publisher: Berkley
Publish Date: Out Now
How I got this book: eARC from NetGalley

Just when she had finally moved on…
…He moved back.

When college freshman Liz Wagner hears her ex’s voice for the first time since he moved clear across the freaking country, she does what any respectable girl would do: Dive into the girls’ bathroom.

Zach Roberts—the Zach Roberts—is back. And he’s everywhere Liz looks—infiltrating her friend group, buddy-buddy with her brother. It’s enough to ruin college altogether. But what choice does she have but to put on a happy face and pretend he didn’t leave her vulnerable and alone in a pile of emotional wreckage?

Pretending works, until tragedy strikes and the only person available for comfort is the one person she wants to stay away from. When Zach turns out not to be the jerk she convinced herself he was, but the boy she used to love, Liz needs to decide whether to open her heart again to the boy who tore it out.

*blurb from Goodreads

I must admit that I approach the NA genre with a bit of trepidation. Sometimes it knocks my socks off and other times it’s tepid at best. When done well, a NA story will have a depth of emotion/angst, uncertainty and engaging protagonists who are learning to deal with adult life situations for the first time. And then there are the ones that come across as narcissistic, melodramatic and shallow. For me, (Never) Again falls into that latter category. It wasn’t particularly bad, it just wasn’t particularly interesting, either. It took a while to get through this book because I kept putting it down. Finally, I forced myself to stick with it and muscled through to the end. I didn’t find anything new or compelling here.

The overall tone smacked a tad young and immature for an NA. Granted the characters were only 18 and had just entered college so that could have been a factor. Perhaps I just prefer my NA characters to be a bit older, further along in college/life and not quite so green and naive. Liz barely seemed able to function in the world just yet–at least not without a lot of help. The narrative had this odd way of dropping in random facts and character insights at the oddest times. Examples follow. Liz threw a decorative pillow at Zach, “but being an ex-state champion baseball player he caught it before it hit him.” Now, I don’t know. I’m not an athlete by any definition of the word, but I’m pretty sure I could catch a throw pillow when it’s tossed at my head. In another scene, Liz and Zach were playing a round of tag in a hotel room and Liz observed to herself that “Zach was quick–it was something his dad was proud of. Unfortunately, being quick hadn’t been enough for him to make the football team…” ?? I understand the need to integrate background information about a character into the narrative, but what did those tidbits have to do with anything in their respective scenes? Why was Liz telling us that Zach’s dad, who didn’t even factor in the story as anything other than an off-page presence, was proud of Zach’s quickness? Providing character background like this sticks out.

It was difficult for me to relate to Liz. On one hand she seemed nice enough. On the other, her self-absorbed melodrama turned me off. It is clear that Liz didn’t know who she was outside of the influence of those around her. Liz cried A LOT. It seemed as if every other page had her crying about something. She repeatedly referred to herself as the weak one and her brother as the strong one. She required the stability of the people around her (her parents, her brother, Zach, her best friend) in order to keep herself together. She seemed incapable of any introspection and relied on someone else, usually Zach or her best friend, to be the voice of reason. She seemed ill-equipped to handle life’s challenges. Her response boiled down to a) freeze, b) state “I can’t do this, I can’t” on repeat, c) wait for Zach/someone to step in and take over and d) find a way to make the experience all about her. And yet we have the narrative, through Zach’s character and later, her father, telling us how strong she was just for getting through something. What? I think we have the opportunity to develop strength as a result of gaining life experience, but being a basket case in the face of extreme stress isn’t the same thing as exhibiting strength under duress.

The thing is, all situations, no matter how traumatic, have a beginning, middle and end and will play out regardless of how we respond to it. That’s just how life works. Major life events don’t wait for us to step up to the plate in readiness before they stampede their way through. The only question is how will we influence the experience and outcome by our response to it? Are we going to be dragged through the coals, rise like the phoenix or be somewhere in between? We’ve all been somewhere on that spectrum at one time or other and as such I could understand her basket-case response, but I couldn’t get past how she found a way to make a particular traumatic event all about her and her experience, despite not being an actual victim of said event. When she saw her brother for the first time after the event, he tried to make light of the situation in an attempt to provide comfort and she responded by “storm[ing] away” and proceeded to present a self-righteous monologue about how the past five hours had been the worst of her entire life and how dare he joke about the situation. Really? Grow up, little grasshopper.

As for the quasi love triangle, there really wasn’t much angst there. Zach, the boy from high school who broke her heart right before their senior year when he stopped calling Liz after moving away with his family. Joe, her current boyfriend who seemed as self-absorbed as Liz. Zach apparently had no flaws (except for previously breaking Liz’s heart), was perfect, always knew the right thing to say, could do no wrong, saved a drowning woman and probably rescued kittens from trees and helped the elderly cross the street. By contrast, Joe didn’t seem particularly tuned-in to Liz, although he started out as a nice enough bloke. But ultimately, the narrative painted him as an inattentive, narcissistic goob. In other words, there was no real angst or struggle on Liz’s part when it came to making a final choice–except for the drama she made up in her own mind. Joe was vilified and Zach was deified. Gee, who to choose, who to choose? Life can be so difficult sometimes. /sarcasm

So, as I mentioned, it wasn’t particularly bad and the narrative did have a certain readability. However, I can’t ignore the overall absence of depth to the story and the characters and because of that I never got emotionally hooked into this world. I also felt certain plot devices were used for shock value rather than something that would enhance the story and character’s experiences.

I give (Never) Again a C-.

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