Carpe Diem by Autumn Cornwell
Grandmothers are not supposed to blackmail their son and daughter-in-law into letting their granddaughter spend the summer traveling through Southeast Asia with them, particularly when said son and daughter-in-law are an upstanding efficiency expert and former life coach. Then again, the Spores are hardly your usual family. Vassar Spore, the sixteen year old daughter of Leon and Althea Spore (so named because “If an applicant to Vassar, the elite women’s college, was named Vassar in addition to having a stellar academic record, how could they possibly refuse her?”), has her life planned out, and there’s no room for spontaneous trips to Asia in it.
So when a package arrives from Malaysia with a birthday note for Vassar and a plane ticket to Singapore, the instinctive reaction of Vassar and her parents is to turn down Grandma Gerd’s offer of an “all-expense-paid summer vacation backpacking through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos.” It would totally ruin Vassar’s summer plans of AP English, Advanced Latin Camp, and sub-molecular theory class, not to mention her chance at valedictorian of the Seattle Academy of Academic Excellence. Then comes the phone call from Grandma Gerd. Her parents try to get her away from the phone, but Vassar manages to overhear an odd collection of words (rubber ball? Egg?) that have something to do with a Big Secret.
What is the Big Secret? Despite their best attempts, Vassar and her brainy friends can’t figure it out, and her parents are determined that Vassar not find out the truth. They promptly decide to abide by Grandma Gerd’s wishes and send Vassar off to Asia, complete with ten monogrammed suitcases (“Much more efficient once you’re in baggage claim”) containing everything she could possibly need, except for a little thing called Realistic Expectations. Grandma Gerd is an artist of the hippie/never on time/live in the moment variety. Vassar is not.
Despite the treks through Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, Vassar is the main draw of Carpe Diem, Autumn Cornwell’s debut novel—which is saying something, because Cornwell brings the setting to life so vividly that you can practically feel the sweat running down your body as you read parts of the book. Vassar is smug, self-satisfied, and altogether unlikeable. Nothing in her life has prepared her for Grandma Gerd, Hanks (“Hanks plural, not singular”), the aspiring cowboy roped into (pun intended) guarding Vassar, or squat toilets. But like a, well, spore, Vassar grew on me. I didn’t like her at the start of the book, and I can’t honestly say I liked her at the end of the book. Then again, I’ve never felt the need to like a main character in order to like a book. As long as the character is compelling and someone I can root for, I’m satisfied. Vassar changes and grows over the course of the story. She gets into trouble and hideously (but hilariously) embarrassing situations. But she emerges a better person from them. It may sound odd to say that Vassar is the biggest reason I liked the book when I didn’t like her, but I liked seeing her change—in slow steps—and the person she was on her way to becoming. For others, the setting or the intergenerational relationship may well be the most captivating part (and Cornwell does a great job with these elements). For me, it was Vassar.
Carpe Diem will be published August 21.