My first audiobook of 2016 was Solitaire by Alice Oseman, a 19-year old debut author who has created an honest, engaging portrayal of a modern teenager struggling with some serious issues. I was riveted by the story and its narrator.
Tori, Solitaire’s narrator, is sixteen years old and attending Higgs school in her town along with her best friend, Becky. Lately, though, she feels as if she is drifting away from Becky and her other friends, as they get wrapped up in trivial things like boys and make-up. Tori seems more and more distant and apathetic to her friends, but the truth is that she is dealing with some very troubling issues in her life. Her beloved brother, Charlie, is struggling with mental illness after a suicide attempt, and though everyone acts like things are back to normal now, Tori knows that they aren’t.
Tori’s internal struggles mount as she becomes more isolated at school, and into this turbulent mix of emotions comes Lucas, an old childhood friend whom she feels she doesn’t know anymore, a new boy named Michael Holden, and Solitaire. No one knows exactly what Solitaire is, but it is stirring things up at Higgs. Strange messages appear, the computers and PA system are taken over, and bizarre pranks begin to take place, all in the name of Solitaire with the tagline, “Patience Kills.” No one knows what it means – least of all Tori – but the whole school is watching and waiting to see what will happen next.
Meanwhile, Tori sleeps and blogs and practically sleepwalks through her school days, while fending off the friendship of both Michael and Lucas. Despite the barriers she puts up, she and Michael do become friends and begin to share some personal details of their lives. Meanwhile, Solitaire’s pranks become bigger and bolder – and eventually, dangerous – as Tori and Michael (and the rest of the school) try to figure out who or what is behind it.
Many comparisons have been made calling Solitaire a modern Catcher in the Rye. I suspect those parallels are intentional, since there is a character here named Holden (last name, but still), and Tori’s anxiety and grief over her beloved brother mirror what Caulfield experiences. It’s really very clever, retelling this classic coming-of-age story in a modern setting with a female character, with that emotional turmoil of family strife set inside the already-difficult teen years.
I really enjoyed Solitaire and found it both gripping as well as moving. It was excellent on audio, with British narrator Jayne Entwistle, who made me feel like I was really listening to Tori tell her own story (I can still hear her distinctive voice in my head). Despite Tori’s prickly exterior, the love and responsibility she feels for her brother make her a likable and relatable character. Though I figured out who was behind Solitaire before it was revealed in the story, there was still plenty of suspense alongside Tori’s emotional anguish and growth. Ultimately, this is a story of despair and hope, of learning to smile again and finding happiness when you thought you never would.