Review | New Beginnings by Janet Olson

Ida and Engen’s 13-year-old friendship is altered when the death of their friend comes between them. Engen, guilt-ridden over Janelle’s passing, has become violent. Ida, in her grief, attempts to fill the loss with a one-night stand, which leaves her pregnant. As punishment, their parents force them to join a program called Youth of America Help a Nation, and they are sent to Africa on work assignments. Enter Lev Rosen, Ida’s irresistible boss at the orphanage where she’s been appointed. Lev has his own connection with Ida, although she doesn’t know it yet. Engen hoped the time away would give him the courage to finally tell Ida his true feelings for her, but how can he do that now that she is getting closer to Lev?

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Romance as a genre isn’t usually my go to. What captured me about this book was its premise – a teen pregnancy resulting from a one night stand. I knew that it would either be handled tastefully or leave me infuriated. Fortunately, it was the former.

Yes, the love triangle is at the centre of this story, so if you’re a romance lover, you’ll be pleased with that aspect of the story. But readers looking for a maturely handled teen pregnancy and coming of age story will be equally satisfied.

Some of you may remember my reviews of Satelitte and The Astonishing Colour of After. I enjoyed both of those, but I had issues with the YA leads. They were predictably juvenile and their narration, especially Leo’s in Satelitte, could be very trite. There’s a tendency in YA literature to write a lead character as if they’ve just stepped out of the womb. The other characters push and pull them in the direction they need to go and the only acts of self-determination tend to be stroppy, willful and defiant. Very rarely is a teen lead rational, intelligent and emotionally mature.

I appreciate that representing the teenage mind in a narrator is not an easy job, but I do feel that they are not representative of how I thought and acted as a teenager. An adult writer looking back on their own teen years may feel differently, but I wonder if their idea of what a teenager looks like comes from parenting one rather than delving into the mind of one.

Now enter Ida Denmark, a YA heroine without the pitfalls of naivity and immaturity. She’s witty, she knows her own mind and she’s complex. Engen and Lev each have their own appeal to Ida, and although less developed than her, are also complex characters, but she doesn’t let her attraction or affection for either of them sway her into making decisions she wouldn’t have otherwise made. This is particularly pertinent during the pregnancy plotline – even whilst considering whether she wants to keep the baby (no spoilers – you’ll have to read to find out more!) she thinks with a clear head about what she wants, not what others are pushing her to do.

I have a great deal of respect for Olson for creating a character like Ida. Ida is not chaste, but equally she’s not promiscious and reckless; she falls somewhere in between, wonderfully human and capable of both making mistakes and growing from them. In her struggle to deal with her grief, she doesn’t flagellate herself for the way she copes. She has enough self-awareness to move forward, even though her future may not be what she intended.

The male leads in this story get less glowing praise from me than Ida, although I did enjoy the part each of them played in the story. Engen is Ida’s long-term friend and it’s clear they have feelings for each other. Lev is her boss at the orphanage and has his own long-term connection to Ida which is revealed throughout the book. Despite their different types of devotion to the MC, often respectful and passionate in equal measure, I felt neither really hit the mark for Ida’s significant other. You’ll have to read the book to see what happens in the end!

To conclude my review, I was deeply impressed with how Olson has avoided creating a stereotypical teenage facsmilie, and instead produced a multifacted, flawed, likeable and interesting young woman. Even if romance isn’t your thing, pick up this book and get to know Ida. You won’t regret it.

★★★★★

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