I’ve read a fair amount of young adult fiction of late, most of it with a leaning toward the horror genre (not surprisingly). The Detour by S. A. Bodeen, published in 2015, is one of the few that has really stayed with me.
After thinking about it—on and off—for several days, I realized that part of the reason the novel wasn’t letting go of me was that it featured a distinctly unlikable protagonist. The Detour also raises important questions that (even more importantly) are not resolved and perhaps don’t even have clear answers. The Detour thus stretches what can sometimes be the often rather suffocating confines of YA literature, with its firmly drawn moral boundaries and clear resolutions.
The Plot: The Detour centers on seventeen-year-old Livvy Flynn—a best-selling author of YA literature. When the novel opens, she’s driving her expensive convertible to a writing retreat, bright red Birkin bag close at hand. She goes to such retreats, even though she doesn’t particularly enjoy them, because, as she tells her mother, “‘I’m a real writer. . . . An author, for God’s sake.” While thinking highly of herself and her own lofty duties, Livvy has nothing but contempt for the aspiring writers who actually attend these retreats, with their pathetic hopes of meeting and learning from her; they’re “earnest, eager housewives well over thirty,” and “middle-aged moms who didn’t stand a chance.” Anyone over thirty, then, or anyone who might aspire to write but hasn’t yet made millions, or perhaps just anyone at all, might not be too upset when a moment’s inattention on Livvy’s part causes her precious convertible to flip over. What’s more, the strange girl at the side of the road who had caused her momentary lapse in concentration then hits Livvy over the head, rendering her unconscious. When she wakes up, she’s in a strange room with a strange woman, and she’s in pain. It soon becomes clear that the woman—Peg—has no intention of taking Livvy to a hospital and is, in fact, intent on keeping her locked in a basement. She wants Livvy to apologize, moreover, although Livvy has no idea for what. (The parallels to Stephen King’s Misery are obvious—and Livvy even references the novel herself.)
As the plot unfolds, we learn more about Livvy, and what we learn explains, to some degree, her condescending attitude. She was bullied viciously for years in school and eventually had to be pulled out and home-schooled. Livvy seems to feel, however, that the brutality that scarred her school years make her entitled to the lavish wealth she’s earned. She feels like she’s earned it (by herself) and, conversely, that those who are not successful, rich, and famous have not earned it—that the fault is somehow theirs. Her contempt for those who have struggled and failed is palpable.
Livvy, in short, is thoroughly unlikable. Indeed, as the story plays out, as the reasons for Livvy’s capture became clear, my sympathies increasingly shifted to her captor. This may have something to do with my age, but even my 13-year-old-daughter struggled to like Livvy, though she liked her more than I did. But the bottom line is that Livvy’s thoroughgoing unlikability made the novel way more interesting to me than if she had been a more predictable, perhaps more bland, protagonist.
Having had the chance to talk to S. A. Bodeen about The Detour, it was interesting to me that she makes it clear she knows Livvy is unlikable. As she puts it:
Livvy is quite unlikeable. And more than one review of this book eviscerated me for that. There’s such a gender gap there: male characters can be unlikeable, but it feels like girls cannot. And I believe YA readers are more sophisticated than that.
Bodeen explained that Livvy’s unlikability is in large part a result of her having been bullied.
I see so many “bully” books lately, but not many address the after-effects: what does the kid grow up to be like when the bullying is over.
The severe bullying Livvy experienced wasn’t just a throwaway plot point, in other words; it wasn’t thrown in to ensure the novel hit some fashionable teen social issue; it was real. Livvy was bullied, and her character suffered because of it. She came to believe that the world owed her. Again, to quote Bodeen:
But Livvy is pissed at the world, she’s bitter, and why shouldn’t she revel in the world finally giving her something to make up for that?
As Bodeen notes above, The Detour has been criticized for Livvy’s unlikeability—but the critical review that I read entirely misses the point: it confuses a character who’s hard to like with a novel that’s hard to like. But in my view, The Detour is a provocative novel and worth reading precisely because its protagonist is unlikable. I didn’t identify with Livvy at all—and that’s just one reason I enjoyed the novel.
There’s a final twist too, as The Detour comes to a surprising and violent end, and as we find out why Peg kept Livvy prisoner. It’s something Livvy should have known (indeed Peg keeps telling her she needs to apologize), but Livvy just keeps drawing a blank. Readers will be left wondering if this too is a moral failing on Livvy’s part (I certainly did). But the novel doesn’t offer any easy answers, only difficult questions.