Where it Began by Ann Redisch Stampler opens with a fairly simple premise: a teenage girl wakes up in the hospital, having barely survived a car accident. She has no memory of the night in question, but she's certain she's to blame.
The narrative voice is fresh, crisp, and incredibly witty. I absolutely loved it. (Also, there is BILLY NASH. BILLY NAAAAAAAAAAAASH.)
What makes the book stand out so much? I shall tell you!
Gabby's narration is fabulously sarcastic. She considers herself a "sub-regular" at school, skill-less and destined for some crappy no-name college while her classmates head to Princeton and Stanford, but as readers we quickly realize she has an inaccurate, harsh view of herself. In truth, she's a talented artist, and an extremely witty young woman.
Check out how Gabby describes some of the people in her life:
Boyfriend Billy Nash, polo-playing golden boy of the school: "Billy sticks out his hand like a politician who is pretty damned sure he is going to get my vote. Then he flashes me The Grin. The smoldering, adorable grin. Like he knows that I'm going to race from precinct to precinct and vote for him over and over all day long."
Friend Lisa: "Lisa had been on a religious Outward Bound where she learned to survive if she ever gets stranded in Wisconsin with only dehydrated stew, a toothbrush, and a pocket Bible."
Mother Vivian (always Vivian; never Mom): "She is sitting in the corner on a green plastic chair, maybe too far away for me to see her clearly. Or maybe in her quest to look as if she's made of ten-years-younger, wrinkle-free plastic sheeting, my mother has found a way to get herself permanently, cosmetically airbrushed so nobody can see her all that clearly."
Use of Humor
I really like books that maintain a sharp, biting sense of humor amidst very real, very painful drama. Where it Began does this expertly, placing both elements in stark relief. Gabby has suffered through a terrible car crash; her face is bashed in; her boyfriend seems to have mysteriously abandoned her; and her alcoholic parents who live "in the lower dregs of Bel Air" have pinned all their hopes for social advancement on their daughter's continued attendance at the prestigious Winston School.
Despite the heartache and confusion that swirls around the story, and despite the increased evidence that poor Gabby has been left out to dry, the book is also deeply, darkly hilarious.
As part of his latest probation terms (it turns out Billy is anything but a golden boy), Billy is supposed to be counseling other teens at the Youth League shelter in Santa Monica. Of course, he has no intention of doing this. As Gabby puts it, "The only helpful counseling he could possibly be doing would have to be arriving by astral projection via the psychic cat that's always out there on the Third Street Promenade in a wizard hat making money for his half-zonked owner."
Use of Setting
Where it Began takes place in the Three B's (Bel Air, Brentwood, Beverly Hills), as well as the Valley, the West Side, and all of Los Angeles. Stampler clearly knows this world and fully immerses the reader in it.
Because Billy is easily bored, he takes Gabby all over the city in his beloved Beemer. "The best Pho 999 for Vietnamese noodles so far out on Sepulveda, it is almost at the far end of the Valley"; "hickory burgers on the red faux-leather stools at the counter at the Apple Pan on Pico"; "Versailles for Cuban plantains and black beans in Culver City"; "tacos at La Canasta, which is somewhere so far south and east of downtown that it looks like some whole other country"; "the Cajun place at the Fairfax Farmers' Market that has homemade yam potato chips fried up and ready to eat by ten a.m."
Having been to several of those places, I can attest to the accuracy of those descriptions. Yum.
Speaking of Billy, he's an enviably well constructed, well written character, equal parts seductive, fascinating, and horrifying. As a reader, I wanted Billy around. Just like Gabby, I yearned for and anticipated his texts, instant messages, phone calls, and cameos. He's impossibly magnetic. He's also an appalling human being, and waiting for Gabby to arrive at this conclusion (as readers will probably do early on) fills the book with tension and occasional frustration, yet I understood completely why Gabby was in love with him and in thrall to him.
In short, I'm rather obsessed with this book and I hope you like it, too. Enjoy!