Book Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever’ by Tim Federle

Better Nate Than EverBetter Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was in middle school, I would’ve skipped this book. There are no explosions; I’ve got exactly two things in common with the main character, and neither of those two things are the title character’s tendency to burst into tears when big things go down, his overall shyness/general awkwardness with people, or his love of theatre (I am pretty much tone deaf), which are pretty major character traits to not share with the presumably relatable protagonist.

Back in middle school, I would’ve missed out on a pretty awesome piece of work.

You don’t have to be a kid, interested in theatre (Federle explains the musical references, which is nice because I totally needed them), or otherwise ‘into’ the topics to get a lot out of this book. For one, the wit is solid—Nate is totally sardonic, brought about in part from years of bullying (and I mean actual head-in-the-toilet, not the stuff schools haven’t mostly banned yet) and also having a personality that’s so interesting, I spent half the book being like ‘speak up more, kid!’ So many good quips missed out on. Le sigh.

But, of course, he doesn’t, because that’s not who he is. Instead, he sneaks off all the way to New York City from his itty bitty town in Pennsylvania (okay, I grew up in the ‘burbs, lived in Chicago for a few years, I found his shock at city things terribly cute) because, hello, there’s more than one kind of nerve out there.

The cool thing about this story is that it’s not just wishful-thinking fiction. There are bits where I felt the roller-coasteryness of the plot was drawn out to the points of stretching, though not actually breaking, credibility, but the premise of this kid running all the way to NYC to audition for a role in a musical is based on Federle’s actual life and, you know what, that’s pretty sweet. Although—I think as a result of the autobiographicalness—there were points where the book felt more ’80s/’90s than its contemporary setting, and maybe someone who’s spent more time on the East Coast and has been to NYC wouldn’t get that. (I dunno, dude, everything in Southern California is new and, like, totally shiny.)

Anyway, the plot is a lot more compelling than 11-year-old me would’ve expected, largely thanks to Federle’s fantastic narrative voice and his great timing as far as the real issues vs. lightheartedness go. Real things happen in this book—Nate’s own problems with his family, which aren’t only limited to being the black, possibly gay sheep from Jankburg, PA—sexuality and the impending awareness of sexual interest, a.k.a. the beast known as puberty; also, there’s his also-an-outcast best friend, whose mother has cancer, and even the themes brought about from the tryout for the musical, which happens to be a Broadway version of E.T. so, yay, more small town things. (I’m already scared of small towns. This didn’t help.)

I laughed out loud a bunch of times while reading this, and it was a pleasant surprise to find out how into the story I got—the ending is a real cliffhanger, and if I hadn’t had the ARC of the sequel sitting there, I would be pretty irate right now.

View all my reviews

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