Julie Seagle had just arrived in Boston to begin her freshman year in college when she learned that the apartment she rented — sight unseen — via an Internet advertisement did not exist. At the address where she was supposed to unpack and settle into her new apartment, she found a seedy restaurant in a dangerous part of town. Distraught, she called her mother back home in Ohio who, fortunately, was able to reach her former college roommate, Erin Watkins. Quickly, Erin dispatched her son, Matthew, to rescue Julie by bringing her to their home to stay until she could locate a suitable residence. Matthew is a geeky twenty-one-year-old student of physics and mathematics at M.I.T.
Julie settles into the bedroom formerly occupied by Erin and her husband, Roger’s, oldest son, Finn. It seems that Finn is traveling the world, serving as a volunteer with various groups pursuing worthy causes such as saving elephants. Meanwhile, Matthew tries to warn Julie that the youngest Watkins child, Celeste, has some unusual personality characteristics. Julie is shocked to meet the thirteen-year-old and find her wearing a pinafore suitable for a much younger girl. Celeste is obviously extremely intelligent, but speaks in a rather stilted, formal manner.
But what is most peculiar is the object Celeste insists upon placing at the dinner table with the rest of the family and Julie: Flat Finn, a cardboard representation of her absent older brother to which she seems to have a disturbing attachment.
Julie decides to send Finn a message via Facebook, introducing herself and explaining that she is staying in his bedroom. They quickly strike up a friendship. Finn is gorgeous, as well as witty, smart, and caring. Julie, an only child, also grows increasingly close to both Matthew and Celeste. Erin and Roger graciously invite Julie to stay as long as she likes and the arrangement suits her because it allows her to save a great deal of money, while enjoying the safety and security of living with a family. Julie is intrigued by and anxious to help Celeste develop the ability to interact with her peers and, hopefully, make some friends at the private school she attends. She agrees to pick Celeste up from school each afternoon and spend time with her.
But when Julie tries to understand Celeste’s attachment to and dependence upon Flat Finn, Matthew refuses to explain. Julie is determined, however, to uncover the secret that the Watkins family is hiding in order to help Celeste, so she questions Finn about the situation. As the two correspond regularly, Julie feels herself attracted to Finn. But that’s ridiculous, because she has never actually met him. Isn’t it?
Flat-Out Love is the second young adult novel from the author of Relatively Famous. And it is delightfully entertaining, yet poignant.
Julie Seagle is a naive college freshman from Ohio who finds herself alone and stranded in Boston. Luckily, her mother, Kate, and Erin, her former college roommate, still have fond feelings for each other despite the fact that they haven’t spoken in years. The dorms are full and affordable housing scarce, so Julie, a smart, practical, and studious young woman, is delighted to move in with the Watkins family. Their home is beautiful and close to the college campus. Julie loves living with a family, after spending many years with just her mother following her parents’ divorce. Julie’s relationship with her father has been a constant source of disappointment, even though Julie defends him, trying not to admit even to herself that he is insincere and disinterested in being close to his daughter. Still, there is something decidedly odd about the Watkins clan and Julie is determined learn the reasons underlying their strange lifestyle. Roger and Erin spend little time with their children and Erin, in particular, seems very disconnected from Celeste.
Celeste is as intriguing as she is eccentric. An intellectual, she has not a single friend her own age and informs Julie that, except to attend school, she does not leave the house. Still, she is a young teenager who obviously longs to fit in, as evidenced by the way she responds to Julie’s attention and offers to assist her with styling her hair, polishing her nails, and doing all the things that young girls love. Celeste is plainly entranced by Julie and the attention she lavishes upon her, and the two girls become extremely close.
Still, there is the matter of Flat Finn . . .
Park deftly draws her readers into the rather bizarre Watkins household and the secret the family is keeping by making her characters both sympathetic and endearing. Somewhat surprisingly, Matthew is the most complex, baffling and, ultimately, heartbreaking character. As Park slowly reveals more details about Matthew’s life — the responsibilities he has had to shoulder because of his parents’ emotional absence, as well as his devotion to his younger sister and desire to protect her — his real strength and resilience are revealed. Clues to the truth are interspersed with enough red herrings to keep readers guessing until almost the very end. And when the truth is ultimately laid bare, so is the extent of Matthew’s emotional vulnerability.
In this story of family members desperately trying to cope with their own emotional reactions to an unspeakable tragedy, Park puts her own modern stamp on an oft-told tale of loss, acceptance, forgiveness, and learning to carry on. The dialogue is crisp and frequently funny. The characters, including Celeste, are believable. The result is a surprisingly touching and uplifting tale that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, not just young adults.