A burrito restaurant in place of her Craigslist-listed apartment was something freshman Julie Seager never expected to find on her first day in Boston. Especially when money is tight and she’s a stranger to town. Fortunately for her, Julie’s mother isn’t, and after a quick phone call, Julie is welcome to crash at the home of her mother’s old roommate Erin until she finds another place. Warm and generous as well as quirky and academically-minded, the Watkins family is a breath of fresh air to Julie and she fits in well. The family seems normal, if a bit on the intellectual side, until Julie meets thirteen-year-old Celeste and her constant companion, a life-size, cardboard cutout of her older brother Finn, who is currently working abroad. Despite this Julie is unfazed and becomes fast friends with both mature yet socially inept Celeste and her older brother Matt, a math whiz who attends MIT and spends all his time either studying or online. She even becomes an intimate Facebook friend of Finn, quickly progressing from writing informative messages to frank chatting whenever he’s able to connect. The longer Julie stays with the Watkins the more she realizes that there is something larger lurking behind Celeste’s behavior, Erin’s marriage to her work, and Matt’s lack of a social life – a mystery that once uncovered will challenge everything she knows about the Watkins and their dysfunction.
It’s been awhile since I’ve wanted to kick myself for not reading a book sooner but I’m more than happy to report that the self-published Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park has broken that streak. After reading Julie’s sarcastic and witty reaction to finding a burrito restaurant instead of an apartment I had a good feeling about how I’d like her story, a premonition proven correct as I read on. A bit of a closet nerd myself, I immediately connected to Julie, who always felt like a black sheep in high school and hid how much she liked studying. With that in mind it shouldn’t come as a surprise that meeting tall, blond, and nerdy-and-proud-of-it Matt was love at first sight for me. Their witty intellectual banter (especially the math-related quips) scattered throughout the book charmed and entertained me to no end. The snappy dialogue also translated unexpectedly well in the Facebook status updates, messages, and chats between Julie and Finn. Admittedly I was in danger of overdosing on smart talk – really, was Julie capable of saying anything without sarcasm or wit? – so I was relieved when Finn and Julie’s conversations took an appropriately more serious tone in the latter half of the book. I also enjoyed getting to know Celeste, whose vulnerability and obsessive compulsions are both heartbreaking and endearing. The development of her sister-like relationship with Julie is sweet to watch. I may have figured out the family secret before Julie did but my knowing did not detract from the emotion-rent reading experience. There is deep heartache but there is also such happiness and rewarding romance in Flat-Out Love which make it a complete joy to read. I smiled, I chuckled, I grieved, and I sighed. I love it without reserve and hope my unabashed enthusiasm will help it find new readers.
Flat-Out Love is available in ebook format for $2.99 and also in paperback. There is an interactive, enhanced edition coming out this spring in an app for iPod, iPad, and iPhone. To watch a preview, back the project or sign up for updates, click here and here.