A few months ago, I was on my way home from a less-than-stellar fall semester of my freshman year. I felt like a record stuck on repeat going from my bed, to my computer to the dining hall every day. What I had long anticipated as the best semester of my life had felt like a huge bust due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
On my way home that night, I stopped at a Barnes & Noble and stumbled upon Christine Riccio’s debut novel, “Again, but Better.” It was exactly what I needed.
Riccio incorporates some of the best elements of the young adult genre: humor, relatability and romanticized plotlines to create a book that accurately depicts the young adult experience. When paired with the novel’s backdrop of various beautiful locations, including Paris, Rome and London, “Again, but Better” creates the perfect escape for the cabin fever that goes hand in hand with life during COVID-19.
The novel features Shane, a shy junior in college who, after living three years of what has felt like an eternity, decides to break her cycle of schoolwork with no excitement or socialization and study abroad. Shane hopes this will give her a “do-over” of her less than ideal college experience and allow some relief from her parents, who have pushed her into the pre-med program against her wishes.
“Again, but Better” opens on Shane’s plane ride to her study abroad program, which is based in London. On this ride, she remarks in her journal how horrible the past few years have been and notes all the goals she hopes to accomplish during her time abroad.
These include the cliched college dreams of drinking and meeting a boy, as well as more heartfelt goals such as making friends, doing well at her internship and finally starting to write a novel; a luxury that Shane’s parents have deemed is not a priority.
Almost immediately after writing these goals into her journal, the woman sitting in the seat next to Shane leans over her shoulder and asks her a litany of humorous questions about her goals.
The rest of this charming, laugh-out-loud novel details Shane’s ups and downs once in London. Here, she navigates adapting into her true form while trying to juggle writing her novel, along with maintaining new friendships, completing her internship, attending classes and a possible love interest. In the meantime, she must also make sure her parents do not discover that the study abroad program she chose is actually for writers instead of a pre-med program as Shane told them.
Riccio has a knack for creating characters that are real and well-rounded. She creates ones whose flaws and doubts shine through but also feature redeemable character traits. In this way, she provides real dimension to her characters, which adds to their relatability and to the overall story.
Riccio also excels in creating situations and moments that, while humorous and quirky, are also very honest and believable. This is especially true for much of the experiences that the characters encounter in college and in their internships.
The internal struggles and challenges that the characters face, which include wondering how others perceive them or if they are on the right career path, were one of the main elements of the novel that I found most comforting in the fall semester. I believe many others will connect with these elements as well.
One part of the novel that I found most intriguing was that Riccio describes themes of fate and chance through a reappearing character who is defined only as a magical woman with red hair. Her existence in the story personifies the ideas of fate and chance and helps the reader to better understand how these elements dictate the events that occur in the novel. I thought that the addition of this character was exceptional.
In “Again, but Better,” Riccio creates an ever-changing world, in which Shane navigates being herself while struggling with creating the future she desires. Throughout the story, Riccio combines themes of fate and chance with relatable situations, humor and heart. The culmination is a story that will make you laugh out loud while also contemplating the reasons why life occurs as it does.
This novel is a great, lighthearted read for a time in which there is so much uncertainty and darkness. The bright characters who are full of heart, contrasted with the novel’s beautiful settings, making it the perfect escape during a period in which wanderlust and humor are increasingly hard to find.