Review: Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

From the cover and summary, I didn’t expect Pushing the Limits to expand the bounds of young adult contemporary, no matter the title’s promise. The first few chapters did nothing to dispel this notion, with protagonists Echo and Noah seeming to typify the damaged, angry teens that are so often the stars of the genre. Echo, in particular, threatened to exemplify all of the traits that I find least appealing in a young female narrator. We first meet her in a family therapy session set up by the state as a result of some traumatic event that she has experienced in her past. The story is told in alternating first-person narration, so we get a pretty good look inside Echo’s thoughts in this opening chapter. Echo set off warning bells right off the bat: her name, while pretty, seemed chosen merely for its pretentious conspicuousness. Her characterizations of her father, stepmother, and therapist are bitter and not all that cleverly conveyed. Subtlety doesn’t seem to be a part of Echo’s repertoire, at least not initially. Though McGarry might have been hoping to garner the sympathy vote early on, Echo’s whiny inner-monologue makes me question whether those on whom she clearly places the blame are actually at fault, or whether she is merely another spoiled, self-involved brat as so many young adult leads are. To top it all off, her chapter

Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry

concludes with a stunningly cliche entrance by our other protagonist, the clearly-misunderstood bad boy Noah. Unlike Echo, Noah’s initial encounter with therapist Mrs. Collins gave early hints of the complex character lurking underneath the stereotype. Yet even so, it really took a while for Pushing the Limits to get going, instead dwelling for far too long in waters that have been retread by countless books before.

Thankfully, after the first hundred pages or so, McGarry finally steps from behind the shadows of Jennifer Echols and Simone Elkeles, and as soon as she does, I’m hooked. It took me far longer to read Pushing the Limits than I had intended; though it’s not a skimpy read at 400 pages, nonetheless I’m usually able to breeze through a book this length in this genre in a couple of hours. Yet despite my intentions, I found myself lingering over passages, not even having to check the impulse to skim because it never arose. My immersion into the story was involuntarily but oh so sweet, as McGarry truly impressed me to deliver a story that is rare in young adult contemporary romance. McGarry utilized the structure of her novel to its full advantage; as we alternate between Echo’s and Noah’s perspectives, each character sheds a tissuepaper-thin layer with each exchange. Neither is as predictable or as stereotypical as they first appeared, with each experiencing excruciating pasts whose import isn’t inflated for literary merit’s sake. While my experience with both the psychology of mental illness and the foster system is purely academic, that which I do know made McGarry’s depictions of both Echo’s and Noah’s issues all the more believable. And while each character’s troubles is so authentic separately, it is even more satisfying to see an author push to make their combined conflict not only plausible, but indeed so real that I truly wondered how they were going to find a way through.

I loved reading a novel where the entire situation felt not only real, but important. Noah and Echo really have to work to overcome their problems, and they don’t always respond in the ways you would wish them to, but their choices also never cause you to rescind your support and sympathy. They use each other’s strength to grow but they don’t sacrifice any of their own good qualities simply to expedite the conclusion that they want. They think through their situations and make responsible decisions, and they actually understand that their actions have consequences for others. It was wonderful to see a young female character who didn’t immediately overthrow her friends for romance’s sake, and while the same problem isn’t as prevalent among male characters, it was nevertheless nice to see Noah’s stalwart defense and loyalty toward his own makeshift family.

It might seem odd that I have yet to talk about the romance aspect of a romance book, but honestly, this book is much more than a mere love story. True, the romance between Echo and Noah is ultimately what drives the narrative and the storylines, but the book tackles other difficult issues so elegantly that I’m reluctant to characterize the book by its romance alone. Yet I am thrilled to report that the romance, while not of sole importance, definitely lives up to the promise of the other elements. In this age of instalove fueled by unwarranted, shallow dialogue and lust-filled looks, I was hungry for a book that actually took the time to show me why these characters should care about each other. McGarry took up the gauntlet and she did it well. What’s more, she didn’t feel the need to eschew completely the tropes that are effective when used sparingly: Echo and Noah aren’t overly fond of each other when they first meet, despite major physical attraction on both sides, yet their journey toward romance takes a long stop in the friendzone. We watch them get to know each other, inch their ways under each other’s skin even while neither one seriously contemplates the possibility of becoming something more. By the time each character realizes that they do, indeed, want more, and that the possibility isn’t merely a dream, but could actually work, we readers have seen enough to understand why they would feel a connection. In his wonderful book The Fault in Our Stars, John Green put it best when he said that you “[fall] in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.” I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched Echo and Noah fall for each other, and so McGarry actually achieved the butterflies most authors only wish for with her descriptions of little looks and touches whose significance is so much more than the sum of their parts.

I’m not quite sure why Pushing the Limits wasn’t a five-cup read for me. Yet while something held me back from giving it that coveted high score, I can’t deny how much I loved falling in love alongside these characters. It’s not often that my appreciation for a book actually increases as I continue to read, yet McGarry exploded all of my assumptions and made me truly glad that I continued to read past the point when I expected merely another rote installment in the genre. Check out Pushing the Limits when it comes out on July 31; you won’t regret it.

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