In this contemporary retelling of The Canterbury Tales, a group of teens on a bus ride to Washington, DC, each tell a story—some fantastical, some realistic, some downright scandalous—in pursuit of the ultimate prize: a perfect score.
Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.
But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.
But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.
In her debut novel, Kim Zarins breathes new life into Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales in a fresh and contemporary retelling that explores the dark realities of high school, and the subtle moments that bring us all together.
This is probably the third retelling I have read this year and for the first time I wished I was more familiar with the original work. As much as I liked the book, I feel like there were some things I would have appreciated more if I knew how to spot the references to the plots from the original tales. Nevertheless, the book stands tall in its own right and is effortless in telling a story about high schoolers on a six hour bus ride. Effortless because it addresses so many issues, from embracing your sexuality, to adoption, parent struggling with depression, parents’ abandonment, sibling suffering from PTSD, and then dealing with everything else that comes with the territory of being in high school and just counting off the remaining days left to get into the college you have applied for. Yet, it never felt like there was some deliberate attempt to tick off a diversity checkbox.
The book starts off with listing and describing the cast of characters, and this fondly reminded me of some of the books I used to read in middle-school, like the Perry Masons and Poirot stories. Most of the chapters begins with and is named after the tale narrated by one of the teens. Some tales are completely fictional and used by sparring students to settle scores by casting the others as unsavory characters in their tales. Some other stories are heavily inspired by something from their life. Others pitch ideas and beliefs that they feel strongly about. Since there were so many stories, I guess it was bound to be a bit of a hit-and-miss? I mean, I really liked some of them, and I do understand that the stories were meant to have takeaways that were morally ambiguous to generate discussion amongst the teenagers, but sometimes I wished that they weren’t that vague. Then, there was this whole running theme of one of the girls, Cece, seeing an opportunity to attack anti-feminism everywhere. I wasn’t really sure whether the heavy-handed approach taken to raise this topic was to seriously espouse the cause or criticize those who were giving it a bad name because, for most part, that’s how Cece was coming across; although she did redeem herself slightly with her lovely tale.
Another person who stood out, both due to her personality and her tale was Alison. Actually, she was one of the few who prefixed the tale with a real-life snippet from when she was twelve. Without giving away much, all I will say is that both her real story and made up one was a bit disturbing and as a reader, it did make me sit up and think about her current emotional head-space. Some of my other, (unexpected) favorites by the end of the book were Reeve and Cannon because for most part of the book they come across as a killjoy (Reeve) and a casual opportunist (Cannon). But then you learn a little bit more about them and end up understanding their actions better (if not sympathizing).
Through this motley collection of tales and people, the book’s primary story features the changing dynamics between ex best friends Jeff and Pard. As the book progresses, we are given bits and pieces of details about what transpired between them over the past couple of years. There is also an allusion to an eventful party and a high-school prank gone wrong. While the party does indeed end up turning significant to the current Jeff and Pard equation, I am not exactly sure what the entire deal about the high-school prank was. There is a lot of noise made about it with accusations and suspicions flying around amongst everyone in the school bus, but I found the entire sub-plot unnecessary. Then, there is another guy called Mace who was friends with Pard once upon a time, but they now avoid each other. I felt like there was a lot more to the history between Pard and Mace which didn’t make it to the book. All that we end up with is Mace’s acne problems.
Jeff and Pard are alike in the sense that both fall in the peripheries of all the established high-school cool cliques. But, that’s probably where the similarity ends. Jeff is passive when it comes to really sticking your neck out and be a friend, and well in his own words, his signature move in tough situations is to – “do nothing”. Pard, despite all his faults (well, no matter how you spin it, drawing naked images of your friends without permission is creepy), exudes quiet strength and self-assuredness.
By the end of the book, nothing much changes for the group as a whole; they are just back to hanging out with their own coteries; so any illusion that this bus ride made a dent in the inherent high-school social structure is quickly dispelled. Jeff wasn’t magically given a ticket to be accepted into the cool crowds. But what did happen is this – Jeff found the courage to look in the mirror and accept himself, warts n’ all. Well, as Alison says:
“When people want to love you, let them. When people open a door like that, never close it, not even to hide”