Review and Major Hackathon: Return to Me – by Justina Chen

The “Eat, Pray, Love” of Teen Fiction

Some redeeming elements; major hacking needed


Disclaimer: I am basing these hacks on an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) I received at ALA conference. The final published version may be different…especially if the publisher takes my advice 😉

Verdict: An honest look at what happens when someone you’ve implicitly trusted betrays your trust and upends your world – and a hopeful look at how endings can actually lead to new beginnings. There’s a lot of emphasis on adult characters, career planning, and New Age-y philosophy, so not sure if actual young adults will like this one. This could be a really empowering book if the writing and plot were tightened up.

Perfect for:  People who like stories about: love, trust, family dynamics; and especially teens who feel that their life has been decided for them by their family. If you are in the right mood, this book could feel like free therapy and motivational advice wrapped into one.  Basically, this is the YA fiction version of  Eat, Pray, Love.

Summary: Newly graduated Rebecca’s world falls apart when, after moving across the country from Seattle to NJ with her family (and away from her beloved childhood home and her friends and her boyfriend Jackson), her doting dad abruptly reveals that he is leaving to live with another woman. Now Rebecca doesn’t know what to believe and  who or what she can trust, including herself: If her dad can so easily betray his family, then is her mom really the controlling harpy that her dad always portrays her as? Does Rebecca still want to go into her dad’s corporate architecture business and attend his alma mater Columbia, or does she have her own heart’s desire? And most difficult of all, should she stay with still-in-high school-boyfriend-Jackson? And if her dad can betray her, how can she trust her heart with a seventeen year old boy? Ultimately the lessons of the book are – and there sure are plenty of Lessons here – that unpleasant endings can beget unforseen opportunities, that one should learn to forgive and be willing to trust, and that you should listen to your inner voice and be willing to take a risk, because if you do, everything will work out the way it should.

Conspiracy Theory: OK, so, this is maybe not relevant, but I noticed that the author’s current name is “Justina Chen”, but that her previously published works were under the name “Justina Chen-Headley” – and she even changed her whole website name from the old to the new. So my conspiracy theory is that the author got a divorce, and then went through a bunch of soul-searching and this book is basically the artistic illustration of that process. If so, I hope Justina feels as liberated and empowered as her character Rebecca does at the end of the novel.

On to the hacks…

 Relationships Ring True

The greatest strength of this book are its characters and its relationships, particularly the relationship between coming-of-age Rebecca and her parents. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book before that so perfectly captures the moment a child sees her parents as actual, complex people. In particular, Rebecca gains great insight about her mother that she didn’t have before the divorce. Whereas before Rebecca and her dad would team up to try to circumvent what they perceived as the mom’s dictatorial tendencies, after the divorce, Rebecca realizes that her dad put her mom in the position of being the sterner parent, and that the mom was never trying to limit anyone’s freedom, but rather was trying to make sure everyone had every opportunity to succeed.

Also good is Rebecca’s relationship with her boyfriend Jackson. Rebecca’s dad implodes her family while she and Jackson are on separate coasts, and while Jackson proves himself to be a reliable long-distance communicator, Rebecca loses faith in the idea of successful relationships and cuts off communication with him preemptively.  The cute and true thing is even though she won’t respond to Jackson’s caring texts, she constantly keeps checking to see if he’s sent her a new message. This is a pretty accurate portrayal of a person who is scared to take the risk to love someone back but still craves love herself. Been there!

 Fantastic Career/Life Advice for Teens (and the rest of us)

After the divorce, Rebecca starts to doubt if she can afford to attend architecture school at Columbia and whether she even wants to go to a school so close to where her dad has his new love nest. She begins to ponder the idea of taking a gap year to explore all her options and gain some life experience before making a decision about college. HUZZAH!!!! I wish someone had told me about the concept of a gap year when I was in high school and I wish more teens would consider the option.  College these days is so expensive and high-stakes that it makes sense for a person right out of high school to learn more about themselves and the world and what they want out of life before committing to such a huge choice.

In the book, Rebecca also gets great advice about how to achieve her dream career (which is to be an architect who builds cozy homes including treehouse homes): talk to people in the field; try to get an internship; travel to gain experiences that will inform your work; work on projects for yourself so you can build even more experience. All of this comes in the part of the book that loses its momentum, so I hope YA readers make it far enough to be able to get to these great tips. Rebecca is a great role model for teens who have been put on a relentlessly linear path to success by demanding parents: she shows there are more satisfying, authentic ways to success if you know what you are interested in. That being said…

 It’s Easy to Take Risks When You Have Are Not Poor 

OK, so above I compared Return to Me to Eat, Pray, Love and here is why: First, EPL became a bestseller because people really responded to the narrative of a woman who is able to pick herself up from a failed marriage and a feeling of having lost her direction, and through travel and the insights of people she meets she begins to listen to her inner voice and start to trust in herself and her ability to love. Return to Me does all those things, too. And second, there was a lot of criticism about EPL partly because the protagonist was fairly well-off and her journey of self-discovery was bankrolled by her publisher. And that’s a problem with Return to Me, too: even though Rebecca is worried that she can no longer afford Columbia because her dad has pulled his financial support and her mom has been an unemployed housewife for over a decade and has no income, Rebecca is never in danger of being destitute and has tons of resources to make it possible for her to consider doing an AMAZING gap year that includes unpaid internships and world travel. The house (totally adorable and on waterfront property of Puget Sound) Rebecca grew up in is paid off and bequeathed to her; she has grandparents with resources to support her and her mom and brother; and her dad’s side of the family is full of wealthy business people with connections to the world of architecture AND Rebecca’s grandparents happen to have connections to the kind of sustainable small-house architects that Rebecca is dying to emulate.

So a major hack I would advise for this book would be higher stakes and more difficult choices for Rebecca.  The climax of the book seems to be: “Will Rebecca have enough courage and self-esteem to go for her dreams?” And then when she decides “Yes! I will!” she basically gets everything she wants, as if it were a fairy tale where she says the magic words. That seemed like a pretty boring climax and a totally  unrealistic outcome.  The author could have really tapped into how the current recession is forcing graduating seniors to make difficult trade-offs. There are a lot of students going though what Rebecca does, not because of a divorce, but because a parent lost a job or investments and cannot afford to send the student to an expensive school.

So I would suggest adding in any or all of the following:

-Make it so Rebecca cannot return to her family home in Seattle. I think she needs to really hit bottom so that her new start is truly new. I think it would be cooler if she and her mom are able to use their decorating talents to transform some shitty little apartment they are forced to rent into something kind of fabulous. Maybe doing so is the thing that encourages Rebecca and her mom to realize that their talents are viable and to go for it.  The author really likes symbolism like this, and what better way to illustrate making lemonade out of lemons?

-She should get no help whatsoever from her dad or her dad’s side of the family unless she chooses Columbia over doing a gap year.

-If she chooses to do a gap year, she also has to do some kind of menial-ish paying job, like fast food or retail or barista or something. I mean, it’s to the point now where most teens would be grateful for any kind of paying job during or out of high school. She should be forced to juggle her dreams with financial realities.

-Rebecca’s choice comes at the cost of something else, besides financial support to attend Columbia. Like: maybe she gets an internship in Portland and so will still need to be away from family and friends – and boyfriend Jackson. Or maybe she does the non-paying internship at her dream architecture firm, but a paying job (like receptionist or janitor) at a corporate-y kind of firm. Or maybe if she gets to travel the money to send her on trips means that her brother can’t go to some program he wants to go to. I’m talking about Rebecca making some kind of sacrifice she must choose herself.

OR! OR! OR! to go in a completely different direction, the author should commit to making the story more of a real modern fairy tale. Think about using Esperanza Rising as a model of a riches-to-rags girl who reaches deep inside herself to succeed.  The author already has a few fairy tale elements in place. She has the happily-ever-after ending. Check. She’s got a narrator with a magic power (maybe) – there is a family legend that the females in Rebecca’s family receive premonitions – this is brought up throughout the book and it seems like Rebecca does have some powerful intuitive prowess.Check. AND she’s got the handsome, perfect gentleman of a prince (the boyfriend Jackson, who seriously could not be more perfect. Seriously. He’s hot and rides mountain bikes and buys Rebecca crafty and meaningful jewelry and calls her Rebel as a nickname and is hella patient and isn’t pushy about sex and is smart and adorably nice to her younger brother. I mean COME ON. Also: call me, Jackson!). Check, check, check.

I almost wonder if the author intended to write a fairly tale and then lost direction. On the very first page of the book, Rebecca talks about how after she had a near-drowning experience she:

“hated fairy tales where spindles could be murder weapons, a bride could be killed for opening a locked door, and women in my family supposedly could foresee the future?”

And near the very end of the book when she enters her childhood home in Seattle for the first time after the divorce, she says:

“Mom fumbled with the house key, her hand shaking so badly we could have been entering bloody Bluebeard’s lair…”

Hey, that’s some effectively atmospheric writing! MOAR, please! I actually thought from the way the beginning was set up that there might have been a fairy tale theme running all the way through, and really liked how the author kept me guessing about whether Rebecca’s  ability to see the future was real or not. I think there is real potential to the approach of reworking the story more as a fairy tale.

Any or all of the above hacks would also help solve another major problem with the book, which is…

 The Plot Takes a Break to Go Meditate – Come Back, Plot…We  Were Going Places!

The worst aspects of the EatPrayLoveness of this book occur at a really bad time, plot-wise! Riiight where the climax of the book should be, the book takes a vacation, literally. Basically what happens is that Rebecca and her mom and her brother are packing up their lives in New Jersey trying to decide what to do next, when the mom’s dad (hereafter referred to as Grandpa) swoops in and says, “Hey let me take you to Hawaii’s Big Island so you can have a refuge to recover from all this bad news” and the mom doesn’t want to accept charity so she says no, and everyone sits around feeling miserable until Rebecca finally gathers her confidence enough and decides to force her mom and brother to go to Hawaii.

Read that last sentence again.

Rebecca’s big breakthrough moments is finding the courage to get her family to go to Hawaii.


So somehow the Grandpa is wealthy enough (even though he supposedly isn’t wealthy at all) to have them all fly out last minute to the Big Island where surprise! it turns out he’s built this island resort bed and breakfast, full of exactly the kind of architectural details Rebecca loves. There follows ONE HUNDRED pages of Rebecca doing yoga, thinking about what she wants, receiving advice from her grandparents, and lounging around island paradise. Yes, this lengthy episode helps clarify what direction she wants to go in, but it is not particularly compelling to read. It’s like a self-help book got vaguely fictionalized.

So for this hack, I would suggest that this whole section gets trimmed A LOT, and that a better sort of plot climax gets written. I would suggest that the climax have to do with her boyfriend Jackson or her Dad or both. Because look at the title: doesn’t the title imply she wants someone to come back to her? Isn’t that what is at stake? I would suggest that instead of Jackson being the World’s Most Patient boyfriend, that there should be a real consequence to Rebecca ignoring all of his loving texts. How about an argument? Or maybe she meets someone new? Or something?

 Clunky Turns of Phrase, Like a Gear Shift of the Heart That Doesn’t Have Enough Grease

An editor needs to comb through the book and alter/remove tortured sentences like these:

“Maybe forgiveness was another destination point, and getting there a journey each of us had to take – each one different, each one coming with its own threat of shark-infested waters”

“Here we were, on the Big Island, famous for its mystical healing, standing on top of devastation in a place called forgiveness”

“Reaching joy is worth slogging through the volcanic terrain of hate, and the badlands of blame, and the deserted islands of self-inspection”

and so many more…

1 thought on “Review and Major Hackathon: Return to Me – by Justina Chen

  1. Pingback: Return to Me by Justina Chen Book Review | The Allure of Books

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