I haven’t done a one-off book rec in a long time, but that’s changing today. Because I haven’t stopped thinking about Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now since I put it down last week, and then yesterday I saw the movie and was hit with the feels all over again.
This is one of the most honest, gut-wrenching coming-of-age stories I’ve experienced in a long while, and an incredibly realistic look at high school, alcoholism, first love, and the overwhelming uncertainty that is the looming future. Spectacular, indeed.
Sutter Keely lives in the now. He’s the life of every party, the guy who can get anyone talking, the one everyone else looks to for a good time. He’s effortless charming and sweet at heart, but he’s also a heavy, heavy drinker, to the point of reckless irresponsibility.
Tharp puts you deep inside his teen protagonist’s head (amazing voice!) and it’s not always the most pleasant experience. By the end of the book, I felt like one of Sutter’s ex-girlfriends: tired of the game. What starts out as an endearing, quirky main character quickly becomes draining and frustrating. I wanted to shake Sutter. I wanted to scream at him, You are smart! How can you not see what you are doing to yourself and others? How can you not want to change?!
I think this is exactly what Tharp was hoping for. Sutter has a front—the charming, irresistible guy who will make your world sparkle—and the real Sutter: the boy afraid to grow up, who’s hiding behind a 7up filled with whiskey.
After Sutter’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he ends up in an unlikely relationship with Aimee, a soft-spoken sci-fi nerd. Sutter thinks he’s “saving” her—helping her learn how to stand up for herself, let loose, experience the now. Aimee, like Sutter, is hiding some things. There’s a scene where they both confess a secret to each other that made me burst into tears. These kids come from dysfunctional families, and watching them navigate high school and their home lives hits you right in the gut. You root for them. You can’t help it. Not even when you see that Aimee is falling fast, that she’s perhaps a bit too quick to forgive. I related to her so easily, because I was that girl once too.
I’ll be honest: this book is not an easy read. Plus, if you watch the movie trailer before reading, the upbeat soundtrack can be misleading. Yes, there is tons to smile about in this story, but it’s also dark and complex. While you do see growth in both Sutter and Aimee, much of it comes at a cost. Sutter has a huge heart and truly wants to do the right thing, which leads to his actions at the end of the novel—a decision that is somehow selfless and selfish.
And then the final chapter…I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s not what you want to read. It’s not what you hope for. But it feels very possible and unflinchingly honest. I think this book hurts so much because we’ve all known a Sutter—charming, fun, smart, but a danger to himself if you stop dancing to the music for a minute and really LOOK at the guy. (Heck, I even dated someone a bit like Sutter once.)
The movie gave me the ending I wished for Sutter after closing the final pages. It doesn’t provide a ton more closure, but just enough to make me hopeful. And talk about phenomenal acting. From the leads (Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley) to the supporting cast, this thing was pitch perfect. I also appreciate the director letting this actors look like real teens, in realistic wardrobes, with fitting makeup/hair; not to mention the gorgeous cinematography (long shots, allowing for natural, flowing dialog). I still wish a few scenes hadn’t been cut (Aimee’s half of the secret sharing, Sutter’s nuanced friendship with Ricky, the destroyed suit, the staged intervention), but I really can’t complain. The character dynamics focused on Sutter, Aimee, and his family, and at only 95 minutes long, this was a truly spectacular adaptation.
Just go read the book. And see the movie. In that order. I feel like it’s an important story. The ones that make you feel deeply always are.
If your wallet is hurting at the moment, here’s a chance to win a paperback copy for your shelf. (Open US/Canada.)