(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)
Lulu wants nothing more than to ditch her dead-end hometown in Virginia and escape to a new life at the University of San Diego. She’s just a few months away from making these dreams a reality when her dad drops a bomb: the family doesn’t have money for tuition, and Lulu will have to defer her college plans for at least another semester. Unwilling to delay and get stuck at home for good, Lulu turns to a wild scheme to earn huge amounts of cash in the short time before school starts: making moonshine.
Lulu has the drive to be a moonshiner, but what she lacks is the know-how. To remedy this, she enlists the help of Mason Malone, a former ’shiner with a questionable reputation. As the two work together and money starts to roll in, their relationship evolves from business partners to something more. Moonshining is a perilous venture, though, and it’s not long before it begins to take a toll on Lulu, Mason, and their friends in ways Lulu never expected. Soon Lulu is faced with a choice: how much will she risk to save her future?
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide exactly how I feel about My Best Everything. There were parts I absolutely loved and parts that I absolutely hated, which made for a confusing reading experience. What it comes down to, though, is that a week after I finished the book, I still can’t stop thinking about it. Despite all the frustrating parts, I was deeply impressed with Tomp’s portrayal of alcoholism, selfishness, and how people can love each other but not necessarily be good for each other.
What I Liked:
Mason: Mason’s got a troubled past, and not in a sexy bad-boy kind of way. He’s had some serious problems, the kind that could have ended up with him either dead or in jail. Sarah Tomp does a great job of portraying Mason’s struggles, regrets, memories (or lack thereof), and temptations. She makes Mason’s hardships real, and my heart went out to him as he fought to turn his life around, a fight that was made increasingly difficult as Lulu’s scheme dragged him back into the world from which he’d tried to break free.
The suspense: My Best Everything is written as a letter from Lulu to Mason and recounts the events of their summer from her perspective. At the beginning, the circumstances in which the letter is being written are unknown to the reader. Is the letter an explanation? An apology? What happened between Mason and Lulu to make her feel the need to tell him her side of the story? Where is Mason, since Lulu keeps saying things like, “Maybe if you were here…”? All of the questions build anticipation and make you want to keep reading until you find answers.
Because Lulu is relating the story with the benefit of hindsight, she seasons her letter with sentences like, “I heard you. Honest. I’m not sure why it was hard to remember later,” “I was in way over my head. And you were getting pulled under,” and “I also figured that if you – a high school drop-out and ex-waster extraordinaire – knew what to do, I could figure it out, too. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” This foreshadowing feels very dire, warning of things to come that Lulu and Mason have already been through but that the reader can only guess at. It provided great suspense, and I couldn’t wait to find out where the story would lead.
The fascinating world of moonshine: I never knew how interesting the process of making moonshine could be! My Best Everything is chock-full of details about ’shine, and I found myself enthralled by every last one of them. There was so much to learn, from safety precautions – apparently you need to caulk the joints of a still to keep flammable vapors from exploding – to methods for checking the proof of the alcohol once it’s done fermenting. I learned about moonshiner superstitions, that it’s a good idea to dig a pit for a still’s fuel tank to make it less conspicuous, and that harmful methanol needs to be separated out from the moonshine to make it drinkable rather than poisonous. It’s a riveting world!
What I Didn’t Like:
Lulu: If I loved Mason, then I loathe Lulu. In fact, I’d say she’s one of my least favorite narrators, ever. She struck me as an entitled, self-absorbed brat who threw away her principles as soon as things got tough. Ok, so you don’t want to defer college for a semester – that sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You don’t need to pout and act like the universe owes you something. And you definitely don’t need to turn to a life of crime and put the futures and wellbeing of the people you care about in jeopardy.
“I was too miserable to see beyond my own reflection in the window.”
Lulu treats Mason more like a means to an end more than like an actual person, which infuriated me. She falls for him, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s taking advantage of Mason and using him to get what she wants. As she admits at one point in the letter, “To get out of town, I had to drag you through the muck.” Nice, Lulu. Real nice.
The limitations of the perspective: Although the format of My Best Everything provides great suspense, it has its limitations. Because the book is written to Mason and recounts events he’s already lived through, there’s a lot of summarization and not as many specific details as there’d be if the novel were written from a different perspective. There is also less insight into Mason as a character than I would have liked. In a way, the narration acts like one of those stand-up screens that can be used as a room divider; through it, you can see general outlines, but not distinct features.
The ending: The conclusion of this book enraged me. Of all the ways My Best Everything COULD have ended, the way it DID end seemed the least apropos. It was rushed, implausible, and didn’t fit with the rest of the story. Also, some parts seemed far too convenient and easily wrapped up. For example:
After Lulu sacrifices her tuition money to get Mason out of Dale, there are a couple of lines hastily thrown in about how Lulu’s priest happens to hear she needs money and is magically able to get her a scholarship just in the nick of time so she can go to college after all. WHAT?! If it was that easy, then what was the point of this book, which was 100% driven by Lulu’s inability to get money for school?!?! ARRGH!!!
Bottom line, there are parts of My Best Everything that are infuriating, but the parts that are great more than make up for them. It’s a fascinating book and one that’s sure to leave you thinking about it long after it’s over.