Stowe Away by Blythe Rippon
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Love isn’t always where you expect to find it or with whom you think it should happen. Stowe Away grapples with expectations versus reality and attempts to figure out a way to reconcile the two. Samantha “Sam” Latham, a young woman bound for prestige as a medical researcher attempts to stow away her feelings and ambitions when life doesn’t fit into her plans. She eventually discovers through hard won lessons that she can Stowe Away along a more fortuitous path.
Stowe, Vermont, for Sam Latham, is a dead-end, and high school graduation can’t come soon enough. It’s easy when you’re a kid to view life in a small town as suffocating and dull and family drama as the sum total of the world. Sam views College as the Promised Land, where smart, worldly people gather and life begins. She declares herself as the town’s “only lesbian”, another reason she longed for a realm where her people (brainy, gay, driven, etc.) congregated and thrived. Her propensity to focus intensely on a course of action allows her to achieve great success, but also limits her ability to pick up on the signals and sensibilities of the people around her.
Seeing herself as a party of one sets her up for a hard fall when she meets Natalie at a dormitory meeting their Freshman year at Yale. They begin a close and complicated relationship over their four years of undergraduate study. Their friendship is at times nurturing and toxic.
Sam is intensely focused on her studies and has a route mapped out for her career trajectory. Natalie is almost an exact opposite of Sam, both in temperament (very sociable) and focus (vacillates between majors). The two women muddy the emotional waters to the breaking point at the end of their senior year at Yale. For many relationships, that could very well spell the end of things. Sam immerses herself in her PhD medical studies at Stanford University. Natalie moves in with her new girlfriend in San Francisco while pursuing a masters degree in Public Policy.
After life away in New Haven, Connecticut, and San Francisco, California, pursuing her studies and the romantic affections of her unavailable best friend, Natalie, she returns to Stowe. Sam learns that there was more than met the eye when it comes to the people and general way of life in Stowe. As she assists with her mother’s rehabilitation from a brain aneurysm, she struggles through a long, dark night, and ends up learning that her hometown is full of surprises.
Maria Sanchez, proprietress of the cafe “Stowe Away”, is one such surprise. Though the two women attended Stowe High School together, Sam doesn’t know much about Maria or the fact that her mother Eva and Maria have become close friends in Sam’s absence. After a tragic loss in high school, Maria rebuilt her life. Without Maria’s presence in the story, Sam would have struggled to recover her way and found healing for her relationships. She is a strong, resourceful, and intelligent woman who gives no footing to Sam’s self-pity or other destructive behaviors. Maria, her brother Pauly, and the surrounding community, make Sam’s transformation possible.
When I first read Stowe Away, I thought Natalie was taking advantage of Sam’s obvious crush (touching, gifts, asking her to comment on outfits she tries on at the store). It seemed cruel to string Sam along. Natalie doesn’t rebuff Sam directly, even when it’s painfully obvious to everyone that Sam carrives a torch for her. It takes a strong bond to save a friendship from sinking under the weight of a one-sided obsession. When the two women cross a huge line late in their time at Yale, it’s hard to imagine that there is a way back from that. There is enough doubt woven into the story (whether on purpose or inadvertently) to cast a shadow over Natalie’s intentions. A lot of what goes on between Sam and Natalie can be chalked up to hormones, college, and the general shenanigans of your early twenties.
It’s easy to empathize with Sam. She loves her mother, but it’s an emotionally draining relationship. It’s an uncomfortable position to be in and the answer is not always straightforward or easy. However, at the same time, she doesn’t give the people in her life enough credit for leading rich lives. Her metric for interesting and fulfilling creates a distance between her and people in her life. She also puts strain on her friendship with Natalie by ignoring all of the signs that “she’s just not that into you”. If this novel had taken place in 2016, Sam would have used her smart phone to stalk Natalie online, dogging her every virtual step, agonizing over every Instagram post and Facebook relationship status. How Sam and Natalie ever managed to salvage their friendship and establish it on honest footing is one of the marvels of the story. It was a stretch for me, but that doesn’t mean that the continuation of their friendship couldn’t happen in real life.
Stowe Away romances the reader with the possibilities of Love with a capital L and love. I recommend this story to anyone who enjoys reading about small town life, collegiate settings, and empathizes with losing sleep over unrequited love (and the messiness that ensues).
Thank you, Ylva Publishing, for the opportunity to review this title.