Lindsey Leavitt is an auto-buy author for me. If she writes it, I will read it. No one does quite what she does in the realm of contemporary fiction, writing realistic stories that deal with hard issues but manage to maintain a lighter tone and feel. The Chapel Wars tackles some harder topics than her previous work, but is still a light quick read and is full of the little snatches of wisdom I have come to appreciate in her books. She is eminently quotable.
This review is of an ARC received from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.
Sixteen-year-old Holly wants to remember her Grandpa forever, but she’d rather forget what he left her in his will: his wedding chapel on the Las Vegas strip. Whatever happened to gold watches, savings bonds, or some normal inheritance?
And then there's Grandpa's letter. Not only is she running the business with her recently divorced parents, but she needs to make some serious money--fast. Grandpa also insists Holly reach out to Dax, the grandson of her family's mortal enemy and owner of the cheesy chapel next door. No matter how cute Dax is, Holly needs to stay focused: on her group of guy friends, her disjointed family, work, school and... Dax. No wait, not Dax.
Holly’s chapel represents everything she’s ever loved in her past. Dax might be everything she could ever love in the future. But as for right now, there's a wedding chapel to save.
Holly is a fascinating main character. She is a math whiz and worked hard to get into a special magnet school where she could concentrate on business management even in high school. Her friends are all guys with the exception of her best friend Sam's girlfriend, who Holly mostly just tolerates. Her family life is not optimal. Her parents are recently divorced leaving her brother in a constant state of angry rebellion and Holly confused. But Holly finds feelings messy. She pushes them down and doesn't face them or release them. They are not neat and controlled like math equations. When her grandfather dies, she inherits an almost bankrupt business, and meets an attractive boy who happens to be from the enemy chapel across the parking lot, Holly finds her tightly controlled existence spiraling out of her control. I liked how this affected her. She makes some choices and responds in some ways that are not healthy and won't make a lot of sense to people who thrive on emotion, but her responses are highly realistic. Dax is even more flawed than Holly. I don't think Leavitt has ever written a hero as deeply flawed as Dax. He has experienced a lot of tragedy in the past year. Tragedy he is responsible for. He is working out a lot of his issues over this still, and on more than one occasion chooses to drown them in alcohol. He isn't drinking enough to have a problem yet, but it's obvious he's on his way if he doesn't change something up. There are many aspects to Holly and Dax's interactions that would indicate she should be wary, yet there are equally as many aspects that point to Dax being exactly what Holly needs. Again, I enjoyed the realism in this. Holly is wary, but she also sees the good in him and is willing to give him a chance. This is by far the most complicated relationship dynamic Leavitt has written and I think it works well for the story she is telling. I enjoyed how their relationship developed over time, but there was a definite irresistible attraction between the two of them. I particularly love how Holly assessed their situation on their second date:
We glowed at each other. Beamed. Radiated. I did not know that like could be like this. Like love, just not fully realized. I did not love this boy, because to love someone is to know them. But every moment I was with him made me happy, and every moment I wasn't with him, a small piece of me wondered where he was and what he was doing, like there was a satellite in our hearts.
As in all Leavitt's books, family dynamics play a large role in the story. Holly was incredibly close to her grandfather and is devastated by his death. She then has to jump into running his business, much to the irritation of her father and her grandfather's assistant. And she is fighting a losing battle. They owe more money than they have and could possibly earn in the three months Holly has to turn things around. Grieving someone under such circumstances is not the best of scenarios. Holly must also contend with her family's fractured dynamics. Again Leavitt excels at writing a great sibling story here between Holly and her younger brother James. James is angry and not hiding it. His behavior is moving rapidly toward delinquent in order to get attention. He is also fiercely loyal and protective of his sister and a piano prodigy. I adored every interaction between James and Holly and the interactions between James and Dax. Holly's best friend, Sam, and his girlfriend, Camille, are also important characters. Camille and Holly grow closer as the story unfolds, Camille helping Holly and becoming a confidant. At the same time, Camille and Sam have their own problems.
There are a lot of characters and much is happening to all of them, and yet Leavitt managed to make them all feel so real. Everything that occurs, makes perfect sense and the story never feels weighed down or too much. My one quibble with the story is that Dax's drinking wasn't taken quite seriously enough, like it was excusable because he is a nice guy even when drunk. However, Holly's reactions are believable and her siblings and friends do caution her so I can't see this as a major problem.
I think this is Leavitt's most ambitious novel yet in terms of character development and realistic hard situations. While I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Going Vintage, it is very close. Anyone who loves Leavitt's other books should definitely check this one out. And if you haven't experienced her unique brand of contemporary fiction, this is a wonderful novel to start with.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Bloomsbury Children US, at ALA Midwinter. The Chapel Wars is available for purchase May 6.