Roof Beam Reader starting talking about Smith's newest book, Winger, I knew I needed to pick it up. Then he reviewed it and really made me want to read it. So, I ordered it and when it came, I promised myself I would finish the two classics I had on my nightstand before picking it up.
That didn't happen. I settled in to read a few pages and became absorbed with the novel. I ended up reading it all in one go, unable to set it down. It was just that amazing.
Ryan Dean West, aka Winger, is a 14-year-old junior at an elite boarding school who plays rugby and is obsessed with his friend Annie. Clearly gifted in academics, he struggles with his age and how those around him see him. He begins his junior year by living in Opportunity Hall, a place for the "problem" kids at school. He winds up living with the biggest bully on the rugby team and from the beginning of the year, he struggles to find his identity with the other boys in Opportunity Hall.
I have to say that I am a sucker for any book that takes place at a boarding school. There is something about the idea of kids running rampant at a school with minimal adult supervision that gets me every time. Winger is no exception. From the beginning, there seems to be little adult interaction with the kids (with the exception of Mr. Wellins, the teacher in charge of Opportunity Hall, and a short excursion to Annie's home). Most of the book focuses on the interactions of the kids, all from Ryan Dean West's point of view.
I loved Ryan Dean as a main character. I had to remind myself at the beginning of the novel that he's only 14-2 years younger than many of the characters he interacts with. And once that piece of information was firmly embedded in my mind, I understood his actions so much better. He's obsessed with his friend Annie in a way that only teenagers can be. He thinks about her often, worries what she thinks of him, and tries hard to lift himself up in her eyes. As someone who works with teenagers at school, I've seen the same thing happen in front of my eyes with some of my students. Being a teenager is tough, but to be younger than most of your peers, well, that's hard.
And that conflict in his maturity level-the fact that he is gifted academically but clearly immature when it comes to social interactions-is what makes the novel shine. Ryan Dean is awkward at points. He DOES react immaturely to some situations because he simply doesn't know any better. But he grows and matures over the course of the novel, and the reader can truly see him growing up.
One of the highlights of the novel was Ryan Dean's growing friendship with Joey-a gay teammate and another occupant of Opportunity Hall. I loved that Ryan Dean was honest enough to acknowledge the fact that some might see their friendship as something as other than friends, but was man enough not to let it bother him. It was one of those pieces that showed his growing maturity. I also just liked the friendship and how it was portrayed. It's clear that Joey took Ryan Dean under his wing, and was open enough to tell him to quit being stupid and to "grow up" on more than one occasion. Their friendship just warmed my heart.
I just...I really loved the honesty here. Ryan Dean just felt like a real teenage boy, fighting real teenage problems-being ostracized from his peers, fighting to fit in, and trying to win the girl of his dreams. The novel was just...right. It made me think about those insecurities I used to have in high school-and that struggle to fit in with my peers. In Ryan Dean's voice, it just felt right and perfect. It wasn't a caricature of a teenager.
There is so much more I could say about this novel, as I have barely scratched the surface of what this novel is about and how truly powerful it is. If there is one novel you need to read, this is it. I promise you won't regret it.