Trish Doller completely and totally surprised me with Start Here, a devastatingly gorgeous and ultimately hopeful story.
Quick background: Willa and Taylor are frenemies, the only common thread between them is their shared best friend, Finley, who passed away from leukemia before the start of the book. Willa and Taylor have decided to uphold a deathbed promise to Finley to sail from their Ohio town to Key West, a trip they were meant to take with Finley before she got sick.
In her place, she leaves them a list of clues to follow during their trip, in the hopes that Willa and Taylor will heal together and grow closer, learning to be friends without her to buoy them. But there may be too much bad blood between them—Taylor’s jealousy turned spiteful; she called Willa trailer trash in front of their sailing friends and picked at the noticeable disparity between Willa and their more well-off friends. In turn, Taylor was cut out from their once unbreakable three-way best friendship.
The idea of months out at sea on a 25-foot boat is preposterous to both girls, who can barely stand to have a civil conversation with one another. Through some miracle, they’re able to agree to a shaky truce in order to reach their final destination, a place where they intend to scatter a bit of Finley’s ashes.
At first I was caught off guard by how sad this book was and the intensity of the animosity between Willa and Taylor. But as the story took off, I became deeply invested in Willa, Taylor and even Finley, a character who was still quite present after her death early on in the book. Despite Taylor’s grudge and Willa’s hard edges, I wanted them to rebuild their friendship, growing and healing without Finley. And as they attempted to figure out the clues that Finley left them and stopped around the great loop sailing route, they were able to thaw out a bit and have moments where reconciliation seemed possible. It was when the two girls found common ground that the book was so beautifully hopeful and well-written. I haven’t found many books about friendship breakups that explore the aftermath, so I was particularly dedicated to this one, and I was so inspired to be adventurous by the end of this book that as soon as I finished, I looked up local sailing courses, if only to meet some of the fantastic people like the ones Willa and Taylor encountered.
And I loved that this was an older YA novel, featuring characters who were on their way to college, bridging the gap from teens to actual young adults. I appreciated that these characters were realistically flawed but not unlikable and that their mistakes were cringe-worthy but fixable. Willa and Taylor’s growth felt earned and encouraging.
By the end of the book, Start Here felt a triumph and one that should solidify Trish Doller as a top YA author, one that should be on every YA reader’s auto-buy list. And if by some chance you haven’t read a Trish Doller book and this this incredible book didn’t convince you, start with Trish’s amazing backlist. Where The Stars Still Shine is a very different book but just as beautiful, heart-wrenching, and also a must-read.
It is my belief that summer reads should be about change and love, with helpful light undertones that can elevate your reading experience. This book did all that and more, and I’m so grateful to Trish Doller for the journey that was this book. It was a really wonderful one.