Shift is every bookseller's dream because it is perfect for hand-selling. I mean, all you've got to say in your sales pitch is this: "So this story is about two friends who go on a bike trip across the country the summer before college and at the end of the summer, only one of the boys comes home. The other one disappears." Done. Sold. The customer is at the cash, money in hand, probably already reading the first page. Jennifer Bradbury sure came up with a premise that would make any author envious. What a great hook. I am happy to report that Shift lives up to the promise of its premise, one-hundred percent. Not only is this story a page-turner, it's a thought-provoking, nuanced read that touches on some pretty profound ideas about growing up, making your own way in the world and learning to let go. I've thought about the characters and the themes in Shift many times over the past weeks. This is a story that sneaks up on you and stays there.
Stories about journeys just about always work for me. I wonder if it's that I enjoy thinking about how a character's physical journey inspires or mirrors his/her emotional growth. This is certainly the case in Shift. Chris and Win experience the challenges of a demanding physical undertaking and as they get through those experiences (flat tires, crazy winds, rain and more rain), they find out more about themselves. It's almost like the journey brings them to greater understanding of themselves and of their friendship.
I will not reveal much more about the plot than I've already written because part of the pleasure of the story is the element of mystery. I liked the tension Bradbury created from the start. You really wonder what has happened to Win (the friend who disappears), and you feel like Chris (the one who comes home) may have secrets. You don't really know who is reliable. That's part of what keeps you turning the pages. Of course, there's also the fact that Chris and Win's friendship is completely convincing - in the way that they banter and get on each other's nerves and know when to be supportive and when to just back off. The way that the narrative is structured with Chris remembering the events of the summer almost as flashbacks interspersed with his present experiences at university was a smart move since this jacks up the suspense. As we read Chris's memories of the summer, we're ever-aware of the fact that things "ended badly," so we're always on the look out for what when wrong, just waiting for the trip of a lifetime to turn sour. Aside from suspense, this structure also creates a feeling of poignancy, because readers know that the good times the boys enjoyed were bound to come to an end before they arrived at their destination. The early part of their trip really reads like a golden time.
I love that this book inspires you to think about how profoundly mysterious just about everyone is, even the people we think we really know. Everyone has secrets, and secrets usually inspire the choices individuals make about where they want to go, and who they want to be. Shift is about trying something wild and crazy without really thinking it through, and how this sort of bigger-than-life experience can make you know yourself in ways you could never predict.
Shift is such an accomplished piece of writing that it's hard to believe that it is a debut title. I guess that makes Jennifer Bradbury a born storyteller. Lucky for us, Jennifer is hard at work on more novels and has already sold 3 books to Atheneum. Good news indeed. Find out more about Jennifer in my recent interview with her at Shelf Elf and in Carter's October Interview with Jennifer right here at Guys Lit Wire. Shift belongs at the top of your To Be Read pile. You'll whiz through it and then you won't stop thinking about it. Maybe you'll be tempted to plan an escape of your own.