“I arrived in northern Virginia on January 1, the metaphor of the fresh start laid out in front of me as bright and wide as the river itself.”
This is the first line of Any Place But Here, by Sarah Van Name. What did that sentence make you feel? If you are anything like me, you may have felt that this YA book is unlike any other you have read. You may have also felt a sense of peace. Any Place But Here is a beautiful reflection of a teenage mind. I would liken my experience reading this book to sitting on the beach, close to the water. The waves crash at your feet, strong and decisive in their movement, but leave you feeling peaceful.
Any Place But Here is about June, a teenage girl who has been “asked to leave” her old school after she was caught drinking with her best friend Jess at a school dance. Jess is a force of nature. She is passionate and rebellious, always signing herself and June up for an adventure. June is completely swept up in Jess’s personality and in her own attraction towards her best friend. She is devastated when her parents send her to live with her grandmother and attend a new school in Virginia.
June’s grandmother lives in a quieter place where June can reflect on the nature of her feelings towards Jess. The book follows June’s journey as she adapts to a new place and finds out some truths about herself. She needs to be able to figure out who she is and what she wants from life, all without her best friend at her side.
I’ve read many books where the reader is privy to the protagonist’s inner thoughts. Very few managed to make me relate to them as much as this one did. What made it so impactful is that June’s circumstances and personality aren’t very similar to mine, but her story was still so relatable. As a young adult, your world starts expanding both outwardly and inwardly. You become aware of the world, but also of yourself. Your thoughts get jumbled. What makes June relatable is that her thoughts were laid out exactly as they were, clear in their complexity. In fact, all the characters are clear in that way.
We have all known people like Jess, June, and her other friends. The characters are well fleshed out and nuanced, with legitimate concerns that 16-year-olds have. One of the problems I have had with some YA books in the past is that teenagers are often portrayed as one-dimensional characters. To be honest, I thought that might be the case here too before I started reading the book. However, it is quickly clear that June has many sides to her personality – things that she learns about herself at the same time as the reader.
A lot of this book happens, as you may have surmised, in June’s mind. The important incidents in the book are seldom events but thoughts and realizations brought about by events. June meets her two new friends, Kitty and Claire when they are grouped together for a science project. As a reader, I barely remembered that the science project even happened. What stayed in my head was June’s consequent inner thoughts that cemented their friendship in her mind.
She also meets Sam, her photography classmate, and Claire’s cousin. The spark June feels with Sam is very cute and, like most other things in her new life, gentle. Sam, Kitty, and Claire are gentle in a way that Jess and her friends are not. The contrast between these two groups leads to June’s inner turmoil about what kind of person she really is.
A major theme throughout the novel is June’s questioning of her own sexuality, brought about by her realization of her feelings for Jess. June goes back-and-forth in her thinking many times and second-guesses herself frequently. All of this is faithfully portrayed in the book. Her journey through inner conflict to self-acceptance is the thread that ties the book together, along with the underlying sense of hope. The latter is helped by the beautiful imagery, firmly established in the first line of the book and returned to throughout the story.
Any Place But Here was right up my alley in every way. A quiet and peaceful book, but constantly engaging and deep. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to lose themselves in a book and come up feeling refreshed with a smile on their face.
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