I really liked this book. It’s quirky and different and so unlike most NA books, a fact that deserves a hearty round of applause in and of itself. Truly, I wanted to give Flat-Out Love DIK status so badly. But a handful of problems – while not ruining the story – were so problematic that my inner school marm had to take marks off.
Julie Seagle is in a pickle. Set to begin her freshman year at fictitious Whitney College, located in the prestige-school haven of Boston, Mass., the apartment she’d found off Craigslist proves to be a burrito joint, leaving her absolutely homeless. Luckily, her mother’s college roommate, Erin Watkins, lives in Cambridge and extends Julie the invite to stay with her until Julie can find suitable housing. What begins as a temporary arrangement turns into a permanent living situation, and Julie finds herself an adopted member of the Watkins family.
And what a family it is. Parents Erin and Roger are college professors, intellectuals so fully immersed in their individual areas of study the family lives on take-out food. Oldest brother Finn has left the nest to travel the world on various adventures and acts of philanthropy. Middle brother Matt is a math-whiz junior at MIT and fits the “geek” mold to a tee. And thirteen year old Celeste outwardly seems like a beautiful, vivacious young teen.
But Julie quickly comes to see that Celeste is not exactly normal. First of all, she carries around and interacts with a life-size cardboard picture of her oldest brother, known to everyone as Flat Finn. She wears pinafores to her private school. She has no friends. She speaks in an awkward manner. She’s prone to breaking down completely for inexplicable reasons. In fact, Celeste is as far from a normal thirteen year old as Julie can imagine.
But as Julie comes to find out, something about the entire Watkins family isn’t right. Erin is mentally absent and father Roger is physically absent, leaving Matt burdened with the primary care of Celeste while trying to manage an insanely difficult course load. Finn is just gone. And Celeste has clearly got “issues”. Most oddly of all, no one will give Julie a straight answer when she asks what’s going on.
Frustrated and perplexed, Julie turns to the absent Finn for guidance. Via text messages and e-mails, the two develop a friendship that morphs into stronger feelings, despite the fact that they’ve never met. Julie comes to believe that if only Finn will come back home, everyone’s problems will be solved. But Finn proves to be just as elusive as everyone else in the Watkins family.
As I write this review, I realize that Flat-Out Love is truly a case of the individual parts adding up to create something a lot bigger than their sum. Taking it apart, I find a lot of problems. But put together, the story worked for me, and I was turning pages to see how everything works out for this people.
There are some smaller issues. The dialogue is unrealistic, with characters speaking in long paragraphs of fully formed, eloquent sentences that reminded me of a “The West Wing”-era Aaron Sorkin. Julie can come off as pretty judgmental about everyone and everything. The way she treats Matt borders on bullying. But the fact that she so readily accepted Celeste and Flat Finn earned her a lot of forgiveness, and I wanted her to be happy. And I’m always skeptical of love stories that happen in the virtual world, so buying Julie and Finn’s romantic feelings for each other required a stretch for me.
But the real problem is author Park’s need to keep the Big Secret about the Watkins family a Big Secret from both the reader and from Julie for as long as she does. On multiple occasions Julie asks various people flat out the questions that would completely solve the mystery, and these people evade her. They either ignore her or basically give her a variation of “it’s complicated”/“it’s a family matter”/“it’s none of your business”. This becomes increasingly more unbelievable, both that this would even happen, or that Julie would not call these people out on their obvious dysfunction. When we finally learn the truth (which I had guessed by about a third of the way through the book), the excuse for all of the secrecy was perhaps the most dysfunctional aspect of all. I can’t say much more without spoiling, suffice it to say, it’s a form of the Big Misunderstanding pushed to almost comical extremes – one conversation would have rendered the entire premise of the story moot.
Oddly, despite this somewhat large plot hole, I do recommend Flat-Out Love as a refreshing change from the standard issue New Adult fair. You won’t find a single tattoo here. Heck, Flat Finn alone kept me entirely entertained.