Book review: Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, by Stephanie Tromley

Disclosure: This review is based on an uncorrected proof provided by the publisher. 

It’s been a long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud and periodically exclaim ‘I love this book!’ to an empty house, startling the cat repeatedly until he gets grumpy enough to vacate the couch. Trouble Is a Friend of Mine hit that sweet spot, though, because this book is absolutely hilarious while also coming with a note of deeper darkness and thoughtfulness. It’s a sharp contemporary novel with a lot going on for it, and all I can say is that it had better be part of a series because this can’t be the last I see of these characters or I will fall over and cry, unable to cope with the misery. Seriously, go read it.

If you love Veronica Mars and have been craving so much more wisecracking, delicious contemporary mystery starring teens who are wise beyond their years but still manage to make very human and sometimes devastating mistakes, this book will be right up your alley. If you’re a fan of classic ’80s teen movies filled with hijinks and loyal friends, this is most definitely for you. And if you like crackling writing that zips along at an amazing pace, well, you definitely want to get all aboard the Trouble train, trust me on this one.

Zoe Webster is just a girl, doing her thing, until she meets Philip Digby, and everything starts to go sideways. He’s rude and abrupt, but also has strange vulnerabilities, and Zoe starts to realise that despite his exterior, he’s sharp as a tack, and he has his thumb firmly placed over everyone he knows, from geeks to jocks to his old friend on the football team. In other words, yes, he’s the boy Veronica Mars, only not quite as cool as she is because no one can compare to her exquisite highness, let’s face it.

When a young girl goes missing, he tries to drag Zoe into an investigation, and she finds herself trapped despite herself, getting into a series of escalating misadventures that attract the ire of both her parents — and her father, who’s planned out a whole little private school followed by Princeton followed by a nice career life for her, is especially pissed. While she starts to wonder if she’s set these life goals for herself or fallen into a trap laid by her controlling father, she’s also trying to help Digby, and she realises that their complicated friendship is getting more so over the course of the book (hey, this is contemporary, romance is almost obligatory).

Digby has a secret side, though, and Tromly manages to present it in a way that isn’t irritatingly trite. Instead, he’s a more authentic, honest character who’s simply a private person in many ways. While he’s outgoing and charming when he needs to be, his reserve about certain things in his life makes him a more dynamic, layered, complex character, pairing well against Zoe. And as they grow closer to unraveling multiple mysteries, they’re forced close together as they realise that the problems they’re facing are much, much bigger than they realise.

One of the things I really love about this book, as much as it made me turn the last page to read it again several times in a fit of irritability, is the ending. Trouble Is a Friend of Mine is very open-ended, leaving what happens next to the imagination of the reader, which is really the stuff of which a thousand fics are made, but it’s also appropriate to the text. So much of the book is about discovery and solving mysteries and wondering where something will go that of course the two characters would be left on a precipice — but not a cliffhanger — at a turning point at the end of the book. I love that this isn’t all neatly wrapped up, that Zoe is left with some serious things to think about rather than everyone being all paired off and happy and isn’t it nice that we solved that so we can move on with our lives?

This is a book that’s artfully crafted and really beautifully edited, with the pacing in particular being important to the story, as Tromly pulls us along very quickly and deeply into the world of the characters. Sometimes the pacing gets laggy with mysteries as a result of a desperate need to get some exposition in to keep readers abreast, while still keeping things mysterious and open-ended. That wasn’t the case here; every scene felt necessary and well-structured, and the story created a world that I had to read through in one sitting because I couldn’t bear to get up and yank myself away from Zoe and Digby.

While people like to talk about reading books ‘at one sitting,’ I really do mean it this time, and though that’s admittedly easier to do with contemporary YA than, say, Proust, it’s still a testimony to how drawn in I was. Trouble Is a Friend of Mine is funny, and sharp, and beautiful, and sad, and well-balanced, making it stand out from the crop of contemporaries that’s arising as a result of The Fault in Our Stars. Just as Harry Potter spawned a fantasy renaissance that turned deeply boring and cliché and The Hunger Games took us to dystopia, TFiOS is forcing us down the road of contemporary fiction, and books like this one are brief sparkles in what sometimes feels like a clump of sludge.