100-Character Breakdown: A YA novel that flourishes thanks to its witty voice and original structure.
Genre: Young adult, LGBTQ
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (March 2016)
The best part of The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle: its protagonist has a terrific, genuine, and creatively established voice. Quinn Roberts used to dream of being a screenwriter. That was before Annabeth, his sister, his partner, and the director of all of his short films, died in a car accident. Now Quinn doesn’t go to school, and his mom doesn’t leave the house. But luckily Quinn’s best friend Geoff decides he’s been hibernating long enough: Geoff drags Quinn to a college party, where Quinn quickly falls for a college guy named Amir. Suddenly Quinn starts to find the hope he needs to rewrite his story, but he has a lot to learn first.
As a protagonist and narrator, Quinn is witty, self-deprecating, and imaginative. Chapters sometimes switch into screenplay format as Quinn imagines how things might turn out. These screenplay sections expertly establish his character through the structure and style, but most importantly through the internal lens they offer. Readers get an insight into how Quinn sees the world and how he wants it to turn out. He’s not an unreliable narrator, but in those screenplay moments, he’s more reliable than he could ever be. And while the novel doesn’t have a very strict plot arc, the point of this narrative is Quinn finding his story more than it is him living it.
Along the way, Federle includes a couple twists and turns that add depth to that story and the other characters around Quinn. It’s nice to see such flawed and interesting characters; they’re built in ways that make them seem real, rather than just sides to Quinn’s story. Especially with Geoff, Amir, and Quinn’s mother, there’s diverse and unexpected depth. And while Federle excels in this area, the emotional side of the story wavers from deep to shallow. There are multiple moments in the narrative that don’t quite peak in the ways they should. The story builds in certain directions, and the payoff isn’t always there. Quinn’s relationship with Amir flows with just the right amount of significance, but the relationship between Quinn and his mom could have used a little more vulnerability and emotional depth.
But with the stylistic choices and Quinn’s specific and original voice, readers will instantly be able to tell if The Great American Whatever is a book they’ll enjoy. The well-formed voice and base is what gives this young adult novel the punch it needs.