I started Undeclared with a slight wince, terrified I’d find the things that had always turned me off of self-published books in the past – poor editing, amateurish writing, derivative storytelling. But I know self-publishing has come a long way, and I figured I might be missing out on something great. While the basic story is very compelling, unfortunately I did find many of the problems I had feared.
As part of a school English assignment, Grace Sullivan writes to young Marine Noah Jackson who is stationed in Afghanistan, and Noah replies. What begins as an act of politeness for both turns into a correspondence that each begins to look forward to with great anticipation. Over the course of Noah’s four-year tour, the two become very close. So close, in fact, that despite never having met face to face, Grace imagines herself in love with Noah and considers him her boyfriend.
For his part, Noah leaves the Marines with plans to use the GI bill to pay for college and to “get Grace,” although he fails epically in communicating his intentions to her. The problem arises when the newly civilian Noah suffers from either PTSD and/or an inferiority complex (both are given as excuses) and decides he’s no prize for the sweet girl who’d been so loyal while he was overseas. He completely disappears from Grace’s life for two years, leaving her confused and heartbroken. Once he gets his head together, Noah transfers to Grace’s Midwestern college where he is determined to win her forgiveness and begin a future with the real girl he’d come to know through her letters.
Despite the somewhat unlikely scenario that Grace and Noah would have kept their interactions with each other strictly to snail mail with no temptations to video chat, Facebook friend or Instagram, the idea of a love story developing via letters is old-timey romantic and very appealing. The potential for conflict and romance inherent in their eventual meeting was huge. But rather than focus on the difficulties in translating a relationship built on letters to something real and physical, with the added problems of Noah’s war-weary mental state, Frederick gives us a series of parties and miscellaneous scenes during which Noah acts protective and proprietary towards Grace and Grace waffles between being afraid to trust Noah and flirting with him, anxious about when he’ll finally sleep with her.
But backing up first, the age difference between Grace and Noah is a bit wonky and troubling. Grace has just begun her sophomore year in college, and by doing the math you realize she must have initiated her correspondence with Noah when she was only in the 8th grade. The idea of a Marine, even one right out of high school, developing the hots for a young teen is icky. Noah recalls how everyone in his unit judged Grace “super-hot” in the prom picture she sent to him. A bunch of grown men lusting after a girl in a prom dress teeters on the edge of creepy.
Indeed, as a hero, Noah comes off as a bit crude. His thoughts about meeting Grace for the first time leaned primarily toward getting her into bed, and this base thinking continued throughout. His consuming sexual attraction after seeing only a few pictures was a bit off-putting, and I found such pre-meeting sentiments as him wondering what color her eyes would be when, “I went down on her or she was stroking me off” to be unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. To his credit, when he at long last has the chance to sleep with a drunken Grace, Noah does the honorable thing and walks away. However, when he says some pretty nasty things to Grace during a fight wedged in near the end of the story, he lost any goodwill that noble deed had earned him.
Other than her “amazing rack,” I never did quite figure out what Noah saw in Grace other than the 48 care packages she’d sent to him in Afghanistan. She herself admits she’s a bit of a washout, and I have to agree with her.
Noah’s thought processes would lead you to believe he was still shaking sand out of his skivvies rather than two years having passed since his leaving the Corps. He has taken to MMA fighting to get the adrenaline high he misses and/or to earn money and/or to gain Grace’s respect (all were given as reasons), and part of the story hinges on his wavering between legal fighting versus high-winning-potential underground cage matches. This MMA story element was done better in the popular 2011 New Adult title A Beautiful Disaster.
Frederick’s tendency to introduce new information just in time for it to be used in the plot gave the story a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling. For example, halfway through the book we learn that Noah plans to buy a local frozen yogurt franchise. This development comes completely from out of the blue (and a few pages after Noah apologizes to Grace for his dismal kitchen skills?!) to give Noah a reason to need a lot of money quickly and thus engage in some shady fighting gigs. The whole subject is never mentioned again.
As is the case with many self-published books, Undeclared could really use a good, solid editing, both for typos, inconsistencies, and some awkward writing that confused at best and made no sense at all at worst. Red teddies become white, dialogue seems disjointed in places, and I’m sure much could be done to help problematic sentences such as: From across the booth, I felt Noah’s long legs stretch out next to mine, his jean-clad legs rubbing lightly against my bare leg. That’s a lot of legs under that booth.
A note about this new genre labeled New Adult, which features characters who are either in college or that hazy post-high school, pre-career phase of their lives: I’m a huge fan of Young Adult and have now read several titles categorized as NA, and so far I would say the differences between the two seem to be a) a legitimate reason for zero parental involvement, b) more frequent and explicit sex scenes, and c) copious amounts of alcohol consumption by those under-aged as well as fully legal. I firmly believe that YA can appeal to adults since it so often refers to the first-times we all remember so well. However, since I’ve long passed the time in my life when being drunk for 72 consecutive hours is the least bit desirable, I’m starting to think this NA genre may appeal to a fairly slender demographic.
In the end, I’d call Undeclared a diamond in the rough. The story premise is a fantastic one, but certain storytelling aspects are in need of a good, thorough polish. If technical perfection isn’t a hang-up for you and the plot appeals to you, give it a try.