For one thing, Keplinger writes like a teenager so well. Both here and with The DUFF, I don't think anyone open-minded can deny that she has the lingo and cadence and emotional landscape down. In a lot of books, I mentally age the characters up in my head, because their circumstances (absent parents, not actually attending any high school classes) and way of conversing just do not necessarily seem teenage. In Keplinger's, even though her characters do things I may rather wish a 14 or 17 or any age person wouldn't do, I never feel for a moment like they're not teenagers.
To be entirely frank, though, this book did begin with a pretty major disappointment for me. I was convinced that this book was inspired by Shakespeare. For some misguided reason, I even though I had read a synopsis and that it was set around a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ummm, seriously, what the hell? Where does my brain get this stuff? That's not what it was about at all. I confess. I was VERY wrong. However, that title! It promises Shakespeare, and I wanted it okay.
However, A Midsummer's Nightmare did turn out to be inspired by a classic work of fiction, just not the bard's. Actually, Kepliger got some amount of inspiration from Catcher in the Rye, a book I personally really did not like. The connection, while not an incredibly strong one, lies in the mental state of the heroine, who shuts herself off from emotions by making bad life choices. She doesn't see the point in friends, because people are just phonies anyway. I'm quite proud of myself for having picked up on the reference before I read the blurb. Also interesting is that her step-family's last name is Caulfield. Nice one.
Roughly the first half of this book really hurts to read. It's a good hurt, the kind John Mellencamp might approve of, a straight punch right to the emotional gut. Whitley makes so many bad choices. She gets completely wasted, hooks up with whatever guy she can find, and avoids any sort of real emotional interaction. In the opening scene, Whitley wakes up on the morning following graduation to discover that she's in someone else's bed, having had sex with some (admittedly quite attractive) guy whose name she does not even know. Worse still, he wants to chat, when she just wants to get the hell out and not talk about it, so she tells him she never, ever wants to see him again, which, conveniently, shouldn't be too hard since he's moving.
Her parents, in stereotypical YA style, neglect her. Whitley's mother and father divorced six years previously, and she was glad of that, but her mother never got over it, still ranting and raving about how awful her father is to this day, and her father only spends time with her once a year. Still, she lives for these summers with him. Unsurprisingly, Whitley wants to throw a shit fit when she discovers that her father has sold his quirky condo by the beach and moved into a suburban monstrosity of boredom. With his new fiancee. And her two children. One of whom is that guy she had sex with the night of graduation. Apparently, his name is Nathan.
Whitley has always been called unflattering things for her drunken, boy-seducing ways: slut, skank, easy, whore. That never really bothered her before. In this new small town, with less people to blend into, the label really starts to hurt, particularly when someone she cares about calls her a whore or when she discovers a Facebook group formed to talk about her lewd behavior. Obviously, this is a hugely touchy subject, and I was really concerned about how it would be handled. Thankfully, Keplinger, after setting the stage and delivering a harshly truthful depiction of how cruel teens can be, sends precisely the message that I was hoping for. Since I know these issues can be an automatic DNF for a lot of people, I want to share Nathan's apology for having called Whitley a whore:
"'I'm sorry for what I said to you that day.' Nathan's hand slid from my elbow to my wrist. 'It wasn't okay for me to call you a whore. It's not okay for anyone to say that. Not the people online. And definitely not me.'"
What Nathan said was not okay, but he owned up, and he stepped up from there on out to make sure that she never lets her think he truly feels that way. When she doubts herself or blames herself for an attempted rape, he reminds her over and over again that it was in no way her fault. Honestly, I loved Nathan. He fucked up in anger, yes, but who doesn't? He wasn't violent, and he apologized wholeheartedly, and was completely supportive from that moment onward. Of course, he also happens to be both nerdy and built, so...can I have one? Seriously, he wears shirts that say things like "MAY THE MASS TIMES ACCELERATION BE WITH YOU" or that have the hand sign for live long and prosper. Also, the boy can kiss. Seriously, if you like hot kissing scenes in books, Keplinger has got your back. Just make sure you have some sort of fanning implement handy.
Even better, as much as I loved the way that Nathan and Whitley's relationship slowly evolved, that was not the central plot line of the book. A Midsummer's Nightmare focuses more on Whitley overcoming her issues with her parents, and learning to not be so self-destructive. Just for the record, I don't think there is anything wrong with her sleeping around or getting drunk occasionally or being a loner, except that those things did not make her happy. She needed to grow, and, as much as she hated it for a while, being thrown into a different family environment was the shock to her system that she really needed.
Keplinger's characterization rocked. Whitley, of course, rocked, confident and broken and funny and bitchy and insecure. However, the others did not take a backseat to her. Nathan, of course, gets quite a bit of development, but I've already talked about him. Bailey, Nathan's younger sister about to start high school, hero worships Whitley. Bailey begins as obnoxious to both Bailey and myself, but grows to be this irresistibly adorable kid. After a rocky start, Whitley does actually help Bailey open up and feel a bit more confident. Also, I have to say how much I loved Whitley's first friend Harrison. He is gay and utterly tenacious, simply determined to make Whitley accept him as a friend. The boy has style and totally has her back, but is also not a stereotype at all. There's a real affection between the two of them that is touching. Even Sylvia, the soon-to-be stepmother gets some good characterization. The only exceptions are Whitley's parents, but that has to do with the plot arc more than anything. Basically, I cared so much for Whitley, Harrison and the Caulfields; I rooted for them so hard.
I debated with myself (and my delicious glass of vodka and lemonade) whether A Midsummer's Nightmare deserved a full five stars. Maybe it's just my friend vodka talking, but I feel like any book that can make me feel such a full gamut of emotions and leave me grinning like a fool afterwards, in that insane post-book bliss has earned that five stars.