The literary debut of Dana Schwartz, genius behind parody twitter accounts @GuyInYourMFA and @DystopianYA, is out on the buckshelves this month✨
And We’re Off’s protagonist is Nora Holmes, a smart, self-aware seventeen-year-old who pines after the career of her famous artist grandfather. It’s he, actually, who finances her summer trip to Europe, including the tuition of a prestigious art program in Ireland—pending the completion of small art projects he has assigned her for each leg of the trip. (Sadly for me, we’re only graced with the presence of his character in a brief flashback and through his handwritten letters.) Nora has dreamy, pastry-filled plans for her Euro trip, but she’s thrown for a loop when her mom decides at the last possible second to join her in an attempt to reconcile an ever-present strain on their relationship. With Nora’s mood sinking at record speeds, off they jet to Paris.
In each city, Nora sulks over all the boys she could have met in hostels and all the soul-searching she could have done in matchbox cafés. Understandable, but these episodes do prompt the feeling that it might do Nora well to put down her paintbrush and check her privilege. While the mother-daughter tension that Schwartz captures is relatable and real, the backdrop of a beautiful and probably expensive Parisian hotel waters down the conflict. Luckily, Schwartz does not go easy on either character, and the end of the novel guides us to the realization that communication is crucial to any familial or romantic relationship.
What I really lingered on were Nora’s observations about the scenery around her, and the way these descriptions control+pasted you right into the book. In Paris, she passes a tiny bookshop/bar that she does not go into but can “imagine the smell (leather and stiff paper and Christmas trees and patchouli oil) and the countless stories that have unfolded just behind the shop’s glass window.” When she pulls into the driveway of her homestay on the rural coast of Ireland, she observes that “the front steps are littered with mismatched galoshes.” She heads straight for a pub that’s “all made of wood, like a tree house, almost vibrating with noise and swollen with the smell of beer and something a little sweet that [she] can’t quite place.” While we, as readers, never get to see Nora’s visual art, we don’t need to: her words paint pictures for us.
Given that SparkNotes is the birthplace of No Fear Shakespeare, it’s worth mentioning that the book references Hamlet more than once, which is a correct number of times. My personal favorite:
I had this vision of [Hamlet] on a beach somewhere, just drinking a piña colada and reading a book and not having to worry about the state of Denmark or his soul.
There is a scene where Nora passionately explains the name of her blog, Ophelia in Paradise, to a handsome Irish boy in the cozy local pub. She tells him that Ophelia’s character is overlooked and underrated, and he responds by saying he was supposed to read Hamlet for school, but that he never did. This so accurately captures the essence of high school romance that I found myself wanting to get on twitter and @ every student on the planet: Don’t drop everything for boys/girls who don’t appreciate your interests, don’t doubt yourself, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP CRAPPING ON OPHELIA. The exchange made me root for Nora the whole way through, and it will make you do the same.
And We’re Offis for you if: you loved Gilmore Girls, you believe that misshapen croissants mark the decline of civilization, and your brain craves a light summer read after a long semester of analyzing Proust 🔥