by Lisa Yee
Young Adult, 288 pages. ALA/Scholastic (2009)
It’s no accident that Maybelline Mary Katherine Mary Anne Chestnut prefers to shorten her name to “Maybe.” Her list of names reminds her of her mother’s full moniker: Chessamay Chestnut Abajian Wing Marshall Wing Sinclair Alvarez, or “Chessy” for short. Each of those last names is a failed marriage and Chessy, a pageant-obsessed, blond and buxom charm school proprietor, is about to skip down the aisle again.
Maybe’s only salvation comes in the form of friends named Ted and Daniel “Hollywood” Jones. After the aptly nicknamed Hollywood gets accepted into USC film school and Chessy’s skeezy new fiance, Jake, makes a drunken advance, Maybe sees her perfect opportunity to escape Kissimee, Florida. Not only does she imagine freedom from Chessy and Jake in Los Angeles, she sees something else: the chance to find her long-lost father, Gunnar, who she hears is a movie producer. Maybe convinces Ted and Hollywood and off they go under the watchful eye of Daniel’s documentary video camera.
In Los Angeles, nobody gives Maybe or her strange hair colors a second glance. They don’t give her any help, either. While Ted gets a job and Hollywood gets engrossed in film school, Maybe finds herself homeless, jobless and no closer to finding her father. What Maybe does find, though, is her kind ex-stepfather, Sammy, and a new friend, Jess. By the time Gunnar finally comes around, she’s learned more about herself and who her real family is (with a little help from Hollywood’s video camera) than an estranged DNA-donor could ever tell her.
A fun and quick read, Absolutely Maybe is a departure from Yee’s more lighthearted middle grade fare, like Millicent Min, Girl Genius and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time. She’s sacrificed some of her trademark humor (which now mostly comes from Chessy’s character and Ted, who could power the entire Los Angeles sprawl with his energy) to try on a moodier character.
I’m still trying to decide whether Yee wears the genre well. While Maybe is a compelling character, sometimes she feels like there’s a wall around her and she doesn’t let the reader as close as she could. After finishing her entire first-person story, I’m still wondering about certain wishes she has in her secret heart and about how the attempted rape really affected her. Right now, emotional repercussions are well-hidden under outward rebellion. Maybe’s search for her father is a good, if familiar, engine to drive the plot but I just wish we could feel Maybe’s world more deeply alongside her. That would flesh out the second half of the book and make the conflicts she faces more engrossing.
For Readers: Lisa Yee delivers a band of quirky characters who go off on a road trip, a dream that many readers might want to experience vicariously. Readers with divorce, alcoholism and step-parents in their lives will be drawn to Maybe’s family issues which, while pretty serious, don’t end up dooming her in the end. If you’re more interested in plot over character, try ABSOLUTELY MAYBE. It’s a worthwhile read to see what Lisa Yee has been up to.
For Writers: Chessy’s character is a study in the hilarious, over-the-top parent that most writers try at least once in their work. Lisa Yee makes Chessy shine. She’s the most engaging character in the book, hands down. This just goes to show that, no matter how horrific, a monster parent can actually be tackled in a funny way that leaves a big impression. On the flip side of the coin, watch out for Sammy, who is the absolute opposite of most stereotypically awful step-parents. Even though he’s no longer Maybe’s step-dad, he becomes her safe harbor. This is a nice way to have divorced parents in a book without getting heavy-handed.