You gave Andrew Smith’s Winger 5 Stars on Goodreads, and seemed pretty enthusiastic about it several months ago, but you seem to have cooled on it a bit recently, writing that you think there are better Contemporary titles out there.  I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say that while I acknowledge the book has several superficial strengths, I found it to be deeply lacking.

Characters and Voice

Ryan Dean was a fairly well drawn character with a strong narrative voice (although I thought he was kind of a horrible human being, but that’s beside the point), but every other character was either a stereotype or a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out:

  • Chas the jock/jerk (who, incidentally, seemed like a perfectly good guy, and I would have thought his jerkiness was all in Ryan’s head, except that Smith went out of his way to have both Joey and the rugby coach note that Chas was a jerk)
  • Seanie the “techie” with the weird sense of humor
  • Joey the magical, perfect, gay friend, who then became a glorious martyr
  • Casey the closeted homophobe
  • Megan, the sexual object. I mean seriously:  she was never given any reason for being attracted to Ryan except a vague “she liked smart guys.”  And she wasn’t just using him to get to Chas because she is shown to be genuinely crushed when Ryan Dean breaks it off.  I found that whole plotline and character immensely implausible, and maybe slightly sexist since Megan was given no other characteristics besides “sex object for Ryan.”
  • Annie. Well, maybe Annie was a bit more fleshed out, but I still can’t tell you much about her beyond that she likes to run, is “creative”, and is in love with Ryan Dean.

Back to Ryan Dean, though. Although he certainly is well characterized, such that you know who he is, there are still some problems in terms of how he changes throughout the novel. First, there is the annoying repetition. “I’m such a fucking loser” gets old – actually it grated on me the first time he said it. Same goes for his not terribly funny takes on Mrs. Singer.  Next, although his behaviors change a bit by the end of the novel–the long string of apologies at the dance; his commitment to Annie and refusal of Megan–I didn’t really pick up on anything within his narration that gave me reason to believe in these changes as part of his character rather than just trying to get what he wanted.

I was also troubled by the characterization of Ryan pre-novel. What exactly was he supposed to have been like and how had he changed? He’s gotten into fights before, but he is in O-Hall for using a cellphone? Does he really love rugby? This was a big tell-not-show aspect of the book for me.


Those last two characters bring me to plot. Much of the plot was motivated by the “love triangle” between Megan, Annie, and Ryan Dean. I agree with what you said about Ryan Dean being a plausibly immature teen, but I object to the entire concept of this plot on the grounds that it is completely and utterly implausible. Why are these two beautiful, (we’re given to believe) smart, popular girls interested in Ryan Dean, who is two or three years younger than them? I don’t buy it.

Obviously more important is the completely bizarre turn at the very end of novel, with the murder of Joey. What is going on here? If this is supposed to be a major part of the book, why is so little time given to the aftermath? It just seems tacked on to an entirely different novel. Either that, or Smith just decided the book was too long and lost interest in pursuing the ending. Either way, we get no real understanding of how this event affects Ryan Dean or anyone else.

This gets back to Ryan Dean’s characterization, too.  Does he feel guilty for not following up on his feelings of unease the night of the dance? Why didn’t he follow up on them anyway? Wasn’t it exactly in his character to go into the girl’s dorm and find out what was happening, even though he (thought he) knew better? Smith is strangely silent on the issue of Ryan Dean’s guilt–not that I think it is Ryan Dean’s fault, only that it would be an obvious place for a sensitive, smart kid’s mind to go under the circumstances.


Another boarding school novel. Do we believe it? Is there anything that distinguishes the school from every other boarding school we’ve read about?

OK – that’s enough for now. You and our commenter Lauren both thought much more highly of this book. What’d I miss?

– Mark


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Teens, Uncategorized

One response to “Winger

  1. This is one that really did not connect with me. The great part about it is the very genuine boy voice, but I really wanted him to do something to earn a greater sense of maturity, rather than just getting validated about how great he is.

    It does feel weird for me that we’re supposed to take it for granted that a 14-year-old who gets along pretty well with his parents is at boarding school on the other side of the country from them, and that doesn’t need any justification within the story — I do think that most parents who have a decent relationship with their kid would want their 14-year-old within a 2-or-3-hour driving radius unless there’s a really compelling reason like a foreign exchange program or a special academic program that’s not offered at another school. (I was a pretty independent kid who actually applied for a specialized boarding school in 10th grade — my parents were nervous about that, and it was only about 40 minutes away.)

    The Joey-as-martyr storyline left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and so did Annie’s unmotivated love for a guy who’s younger than her and pretty immature. It seemed like the ending was just to prove how awesome and sensitive Ryan Dean is.

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