Review: Unclaimed Baggage




Rating: 4.5 stars
Release Date: September 18, 2018
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Genre: young adult contemporary romance
Format/Source: ARC, from the publisher
Status: standalone


Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review as part of the blog tour. This does not affect the content of my review.

Summary:
Doris--a lone liberal in a conservative small town--has mostly kept to herself since the terrible waterslide incident a few years ago. Nell had to leave behind her best friends, perfect life, and too-good-to-be-true boyfriend in Chicago to move to Alabama. Grant was the star quarterback and epitome of "Mr. Popular" whose drinking problem has all but destroyed his life. What do these three have in common? A summer job working in a store called Unclaimed Baggage cataloging and selling other people's lost luggage. Together they find that through friendship, they can unpack some of their own emotional baggage and move on into the future.

Review:
Trigger warning for sexual assault, alcholism, racism, and physical assault. These topics are in the book, and I will discuss them in this review.

You guys. THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. I went into Unclaimed Baggage expecting a cute and super quirky story about three misfit teens at a weird job, and that's what I got... but I did not expect how complex Doris, Nell, and Grant's stories would be or how deeply I would love them. I also was not expecting this fluffy story to contain some very serious moments/entire plot lines devoted to religion and the things I mention above in the TW. And yet... it IS fluffy and it IS fun and cute and quirky and all those things. I mean, there are chapters from the POV of luggage. LUGGAGE. AS A NARRATOR. This is like Sandy Hall doing squirrel pov in A Little Something Different, and I'm seriously here for creative writing like this.

I have said so. many. times: more books need to show teens' relationships with religion. Not in a preachy/teachy way, of course, but many teens are religious or spiritual (especially those in the American South), and I think YA books do them a disservice by either ignoring religion completely or showing extremely religious characters. So I am extremely grateful Unclaimed Baggage for giving us Doris, who is unabashedly not religious and was supported by her late aunt in all ways, but especially after she was assaulted by a boy at a church event at the local water park and subsequently harassed by a church leader who threw the fault at Doris for tempting the boys. *SUPER EYEROLL* I too was groped by a boy at a church event (although I never had Doris's courage to tell someone) so this scene made me feel seen I never have before. I was also glad to see the tension between Doris and her very devout parents, which I think is a very realistic struggle a lot of Millenials and Gen Z have with their parents. Also, eff that church leader (fyi, she pops up a couple times, and she is The Worst™).

For a book set in the South written by a white author with three white main characters, Unclaimed Baggage doesn't pull punches when talking about racism. Doris talks about how segregated the town still feels, and as progressive as our three mcs are, they absolutely fail as allies in one scene when they ride in a hot air balloon with a man who dresses up in a confederate costume as his shtick and don't challenge it. But I appreciate that they call themselves out and have an honest discussion of what they can do the next time they're faced with such a situation. As much as I don't like books that obviously teach a moral, by showcasing this kind of interaction and self-evaluation, Jen IS teaching readers, "here's what you can do if you're ever faced with this". Not in a preachy way, but as an example for kids who may not see this behavior modeled by the adults around them. There is also a really terrifying scene in which a masked individual assaults Nell and her biracial boyfriend Ashton because they're kissing, and the assailant is a racist piece of crap who tells Ashton to get his hands off Nell.

I don't know how I managed to skip completely over Grant's alcoholism when reading the summary (I think maybe I saw another, more vague synopsis early on?) so that storyline was a complete surprise to me, but I think it's important to show that it's a real struggle people, including teens, have. It's common to see mental illness portrayed in YA, but for the most part so far, the focus has been on depression and anxiety. I'm glad to see more books showing other kinds of MI. I also like how Grant describes his addiction: he's not himself. Boy, I get it. There is absolutely nothing worse than your own brain deciding to not letting you do the things you like/wanting you to do not great things and just feeling... out of it. Mental Illness has such a taboo, and it's incredibly demonized in our society by people who believe that MI = outwardly violent. Grant is a prime example of someone with a mental illness acting in, being self-destructive and self-sabotaging, as well as self-medicating with alcohol to get back to his "usual" self. It's freaking FANTASTIC that Unclaimed Baggage shows Grant in therapy AND with a great support system (I love love love love love how supportive Doris and Nell are when Grant tells them).... but sometimes even that isn't enough. I'm really glad to see a character getting the help he needs without being seen as less.

Why is it that I'm always like, "oh, this review is gonna be short!" but then I realize I have A THOUSAND THINGS TO SAY ABOUT IT??

One last thing: Unclaimed Baggage does a good job of getting around the mean girl thing. I'm annoyed with Grant because he literally says Doris & Nell are "not like other girls", but his ex-girlfriend Chassie is VERY much set up to be the typical mean girl. And she definitely does some mean things. In particular, she was awful to Doris when they were 12 and helped orchestrate the situation in which Doris is assaulted (but please keep in mind she was not the one who assaulted Doris. She wanted to embarrass her, yes, but the fault for the actual assault lies with the punk who did it). I can't fault Doris for not liking Chassie. When your childhood friend helps humiliate you, those feelings don't go away. But I'm glad Jen Doll avoids turning Chassie into a one dimensional villain. She helps offer Grant redemption, and through some literal unclaimed baggage (not just the emotional baggage I've been talking about), readers are able to see discover private information that gives Chassie's character some context, which helps humanize her. I think that's really rare to see in life and in books, and I'm glad we see it here.

Unclaimed Baggage is such a great read because Jen Doll presents these characters in relatable situations and gives them realistic teen voices. Clearly this book has the best, most accurate title ever because it's not just about working at an unclaimed baggage store: it also effectively shows how the invisible emotional and mental baggage affects people in different ways. From the loss of a loved one to the loss of a beloved possession, long-distance love to long-distance disdain, the trauma of a big move to the trauma of divorce, the characters of Unclaimed Baggage have gone through a lot. And yet, they are able to find a lot of moments of joy like finding sex toys and rare coin collections at work, hanging in a playhouse, camping at a balloon festival, and eating a veritable ton of Krispy Kreme and barbecue. And really, isn't that all we can ask for?

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About the Author:
Jen Doll has written for The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, Cosmopolitan, The Hairpin, New York magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Toast, Topic, Vice, The Village Voice, and The Week, among others. She grew up in Alabama and lives in Brooklyn and upstate New York.

Author Links:
    

9 comments:

  1. I won this book and can't wait to read it! Thanks for your review!

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  2. Your reviews are so in depth! Even though I've just found your blog, I can't help but say it I love them!

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    1. Thank you so much, Norah! I tried to shorten this one, but there was just so much to talk about!!

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. I like the funny cover! This sounds like an interesting situation for the characters. I'd hate to live in a small town and be the only liberal.

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    1. The cover is so random, but I like it too!

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  5. After reading this, I’m really exited about getting my hands on a copy! (IG @loftnine)

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