21 Questions is a book about two high school teenagers, Brock and Kendra, who despite their differences form a meaningful relationship with each other and grow as individuals because of their bond. The book explores themes of grief, love, and friendship – all through the lens of the characters themselves.
The book is set in Laguna Beach in California. This setting is important because Kendra is training to become a professional surfer. Her brother, who died before the book begins, was primed to enter the professional surfing sphere before he died of a drug overdose. Kendra has been experiencing anxiety attacks ever since. Surfing and meditation are what help her get through it.
Brock, on the other hand, could not be more different. His parents run a successful drug-dealing operation and Brock has been roped into the family business. He sells to classmates and friends. When we first meet Brock, it is clear that although he seems to enjoy this life, his first love is music – something he cannot pursue because of his parents’ expectations. When Brock and Kendra meet, they have an undeniable and immediate mutual attraction. The chapters alternate between Brock and Kendra’s points of view, giving the reader more insight into their thoughts and motivations.
I have mixed feelings about the style of language in this book. I admire the switch in the tone of language between Kendra’s and Brock’s points of view. Brock’s chapters are narrated the way he thinks – with a lot of slang and curse words, while Kendra is less angry and shyer. However, the excessive slang and text language make the book hard to read at times.
The novel is full of tropes. The underlying themes of this book are predictable. The bad boy male protagonist charms the straight-as-an-arrow female protagonist. He teaches her to relax and she teaches him to be a better person. It’s a formula that’s been applied many times before. Kendra is Brock’s muse in the sense that she is his motivation to stop selling drugs and play music. This is not to say that such formulae cannot be used – after all, they are so popular because they mostly work. But I personally do not think that was the case for 21 Questions.
Although it was heartening to see the characters learn and grow, I did not feel that inexplicable sympathy a reader needs to root for the characters. Kendra’s thoughts veered towards the ‘I’m not like other girls’ territory, throwing the feminism of the book into question. In fact, all the characters seemed to be one-dimensional. The girls who are not Kendra are overly superficial. Brock and his friends seemed to be obsessed with sex and not much else. Brock’s love for music does add another layer to his personality – but the troubled musician character is not one that I have patience for after reading and watching him so many times.
The story is on the whole predictable but is not without its surprising twists and turns. I would not have much of an issue with the plot if only it was told better. Two teenagers who have past family traumas that they are trying to get over in order to live their own lives. As a reader, I would have liked to root for the main characters a little more. Perhaps if they had more depth this would have been easier. I also felt that the epilogue was entirely unnecessary, but I will concede that I have a personal disinclination towards epilogues.
If you like knowing what the characters are up to in the future, then this book has a comprehensive epilogue that ties up the characters’ journeys nicely, albeit rather self-indulgently. By the end of the book, the characters have grown up. I just wish the same could be said of the book itself.