This review contains spoilers. Consider this fair warning, although we'll warn you again below, before things get REALLY spoiler-y. You may now proceed.
Ryan Dean West is 14 and, as such, Ryan Dean West has problems. Not exactly abject poverty, incurable disease, downtrodden by the powerful masses problems but problems none the less. He is in love with his best friend Annie, he is spending this term bunking in the bad boys dorm and he is at least a year younger than his classmates, leading to the aforementioned Annie not exactly seeing him as hunk material. Never mind the constant threat of physical harm by being the only player on the rugby team that's around half the body weight of the rest. When you live on the campus of an extremely affluent boarding school these are the types of problems that can play on your mind.
Our journey with Ryan Dean covers his life over a school year, the trials and tribulations, the loves and losses and the drama that, at 14, we can all remember being absolutely world-ending (for about 2 days), all peppered with quirky cartoon strips of our protagonists own making. Or at least it should have been, that would have been nice. But instead Smith felt it necessary to go SUPER HARDCORE SERIOUS in the last 20 pages, so much so that the ending genuinely feels like it is a different book involving different characters. But not to the ending just yet.
Our erstwhile host Ryan Dean is a very average 14 year old boy - he is insecure, overwhelmed and feels that all the worlds ills will be righted if he has the opportunity to rub himself up against almost anything female. Sadly though, Smith has written him very averagely. I didn't find Ryan Dean particularly likeable or even interesting which led to me having huge problems getting hooked in to this book. Not only Ryan Dean but the majority of the characters I felt were woefully underdeveloped. Don't get me wrong, they were all fine and played their parts but there was just way too much tell and not enough show from the author - I didn't understand why most of the characters did what they did or behaved the way they did which, for a book which isn't particularly short, is a mean feat to achieve. But, to be more positive, Smith's mile-a-minute narration is always fun and really aided with the pacing of the overall tale which was, at times, mildly all over the place. Ryan Dean is witty and delivers a very believable teenage view of the world which I'm sure will transport a lot of the readers back to their own school days, be that a good or bad reminiscence!
HERE BE SPOILERS. LOOK AWAY NOW IF YOU DON'T WISH TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS.
But really, this ending I just can't make peace with and I'm going to have to lay down some pretty heavy spoilers here but I feel it's important for me to vent. There is an openly gay boy on Ryan Dean's rugby team who, early on in the book, gets some agro from a group of local kids at an away rugby game. Then, in the last twenty or so pages of the book, this boy goes missing from a party and is found tied to a tree, beaten to death, just for being gay. This is such a massive step-change from the rest of the book and it happens so close to the end that there is no satisfactory response from any of the characters. We are basically told that Ryan Dean was sad and then he got over it.
For me, it seemed a little too much like Smith was set on delivering a strong morality message to end Ryan Dean's story and tried to work back, creating a story around this. Even the language in the last chapter does not sound like the Ryan Dean that the reader has spent the last few hundred pages getting to know.
Whether I was just too in love with Grasshopper Jungle to ever share my heart with another of Smith's novels is very much a possibility but I can't help leaving Winger feeling just a little bit let down. What started out as a relatively light-hearted coming-of-age meander waded in with the hard-hitting moral stuff right at the end and it just didn't work for me. In my mind it created a clunky plot, that was pretty light for much of the book, and an overall tale that doesn't seem to quite know what it wants to be. Sadly, not nearly as clever or as organic-feeling as some of Smith's other work.
Winger (and it's sequel Stand-Off) are now available in all places that sell good books. As are Andrew Smith's other books, which we think you should ALL read. Thank you to Egmont for sending us this title to review.