Readers of Sarah Dessen and Kasie West will likely enjoy This Might Get Awkward by Kara McDowell. Set in Page, Arizona, McDowell’s novel tells the story of Gemma Wells, who finds social situations awkward and awful and who—of her own admission—doesn’t know how to have fun.

Despite her challenges to conquer her social anxiety disorder (SAD), Gemma can’t just “suck it up.” So, when her favorite beach is overtaken by a teen party at the end of the school year, her fantasies kick into high gear. Beau Booker, captain of the swim team and the most popular person at Page High, is in attendance. Just before he’s about to go tubing with his friend Ian Radnor, he turns to Gemma and asks her to do him a favor: “Pretend that we’re close. That you like me” (10). Even though Gemma tells him that she won’t be good at pretending, Beau insists: “Pretending is easy. . . . People will believe anything if you show them the receipts” (10).

Within the next few minutes following this interchange, Beau stumbles backwards, hits his head on the propeller of Ian’s boat, and falls into Lake Powell. Although Gemma—who is at home on the water and plenty savvy—saves the confident and popular Beau from drowning, his brain injury results in a medically induced coma. Now, she’s bound to Beau, who can’t refute their relationship, pretending to be his girlfriend but not knowing the back-story to Beau’s request.

Well-aware of the situation’s delicate nature, Gemma is simultaneously ecstatic at this sudden sense of belonging while also being afraid that she will be discovered as a fraud. Although she fears that her pretense is unethical, unbelievable, and unsustainable, Gemma can’t resist the warmth that the Booker family extends and how readily she is welcomed into Beau’s peer group once they learn she is his secret girlfriend.

When Beau’s estranged brother returns home, Gemma’s situation is further complicated by Griff’s presence. Griff and Beau have always competed—for recognition and for their father’s approval—with Griff often falling short. The poster child of self-deprecation, Griff feels like he will never be “good enough.”

Threatened by their shared loneliness and insecurities, Griff and Gemma eventually bond. Afraid she will spend the rest of her life stuck in the place of painful wishing, waiting, and hoping, Gemma decides to take her SAD head-on and to do the things that scare her the most. Certain that she would rather embrace chances than backing out or running from dangers that might not exist, she makes a SAD Bucket List. When Griff sees the list, he vows to help Gemma fulfill her goals of putting herself in “embarrassing social situations” rather than avoiding them. From Griff, Gemma learns that “life doesn’t always let you prepare for scary things. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and sing” (191).

When Beau awakes from his coma, Gemma is ready for answers, but they might not be the answers she expects. By now, she has developed feelings for Griff, whose charm and guitar-playing callouses turn out to be every bit as alluring as “Beau’s boisterous laugh and constant mugging for attention” (205). But how can she betray Beau, or worse, face the ridicule of her peers who will see her as having “switched brothers”?

Caught “between the fake boyfriend that she’s still lying to and his brother—the one who makes [her] blood hum” (250), Gemma feels trapped. Ultimately, she gets the answers she’s seeking and realizes that belonging should not feel like it has strings attached.

  • Posted by Donna

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