Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

April 7, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Holly Hogan is a 14-year-old girl living in foster care. Though there are hints that Holly has been in trouble in the past (she had to stay in the psychiatric unit after being caught “hooking” one night), it seems as though her problematic behavior was due more to the influence of her friends than any antisocial inclinations of her own. In other words, Holly seems like a decent kid in a bad situation.

Things start to go downhill when her favorite case worker Miko leaves for another job and Holly gets fostered out to Fiona and Ray. She had a crush on Miko, so is bitterly disappointed when he leaves — particularly because there can be no more contact afterward. Holly takes her frustration out on Fiona and Ray, who seem nice enough but annoy Holly with everything they do. Then, the day before her 15th birthday, Holly steals one of Fiona’s old wigs, takes her bag, and runs away with the vague notion of finding her mother back in their native Ireland.

With the wig on, Holly adopts a new personality. She becomes Solace, the kind of girl that is everything Holly is not. As Solace, who looks around 18, Holly starts hitching towards Ireland, and constantly puts herself in dangerous situations. To be sure, she recognizes that these situations are dangerous, but she still enters them willingly, with no backup plan should something go wrong.

The rest of the novel then shows how Solace painstakingly makes her way towards Ireland. We meet some of the strangers that show her kindness and help her on her journey, and we also learn the truth about how she landed in foster care to begin with. Like so many road trips, this one turns out to be a journey of self-discovery, one that changes Holly’s life forever.

Liked:

  • I liked how Holly’s backstory was revealed gradually along the way. Right from the beginning, I wondered why Holly was even in foster care at all, particularly since all she did was talk about how great her mother was. The slow reveal kept me turning the pages.
  • I was very surprised when the truth about Holly’s mother came out. As I said, I was waiting for something to show why Holly was in foster care to begin with, but I wasn’t expecting this. For most of the book, Holly’s memories of her mother were idealized. Then came the stunning reveal that the mother burned Holly with an iron and chose the abusive boyfriend over her own daughter. Wow. That was quite powerful.
  • I’m glad the “rebel teen” commentary was kept to a minimum. I hate it when authors write teen characters who do nothing but tear apart their adult counterparts. Yeah, Holly dismissed a lot of adults as “mogits” (miserable old gits) and derisively pointed out how some of the older folks she met acted like they could use a good treatment for hemorrhoids, but those kinds of observations didn’t overpower the narrative.
  • I liked how the ending wasn’t blissfully happy, yet was still hopeful. Holly came a long way in just a few short days on her own, and seemed well on the road to recovery at the end. It’s too bad this book was published posthumously, because this is the kind of story that seems ripe for a sequel.

Disliked:

  • Well, I know I’m not part of the intended audience, as this is as coming-of-age novel featuring a 15-year-old as the main character, but I still want to say that I never connected with Holly in any meaningful way. I was never in foster care, never on my own, never in trouble like that, so I didn’t understand her feelings or motivations on a personal level. That made it hard for me to really enjoy this book beyond saying, “Oh, that was a decent story.”
  • I would have liked to see Holly get into some real trouble on the road. She was in a few sketchy situations that could have turned dangerous, but the author never went there. I’m not saying I wanted to see Holly raped or beaten, but some genuine danger probably would have made the road trip more realistic.
  • I didn’t really like the Solace/wig ruse at all. I get that it was supposed to be symbolic or whatever (she was this different, self-confident person with the wig on), but I don’t know… it seemed rather silly to me.

Rating:

Overall, I thought Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd was a fairly decent read. I can definitely imagine it appealing to a certain age group, of which I’m not a part. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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