“A hundred and two days.” So begins Paul Griffin’s young adult novel, “Stay With Me” (Dial Books, 2011). That’s probably about the length of the average teenage romance, Griffin writes, but the relationship between Mack Morse and Céce Vaccuccia is anything but average.
Mack is a shy fifteen year-old high school dropout with a learning disability and a criminal record. His mother has been AWOL since he was eight, driven away by his brutal, alcoholic father. But he has gift: he has a way with dogs. He rescues, rehabilitates, and trains abused and abandoned fighting dogs.
Fifteen year-old Céce is no child of privilege, either; she lives with her loopy mother and brother, just barely making ends meet. But their goodbyes always end with, “Love you like a crazy person,” and Céce is a straight-A student hoping to be able to transfer to a school for the gifted and talented.
Written in chapters that alternate between Mack’s and Céce’s points of view, “Stay With Me” is the story of the star-crossed teens’ 102-day romance. Mack is strong-armed into looking out for Céce by her brother (who also happens to be Mack’s friend) when he enlists in the Army. Despite a rocky start, the two are soon a couple, and they begin to dream of a future together. Mack is training a rescued pit bull that he calls Boo. He hopes to gives it to Céce, who has grown to love the dog. And then Mack makes a terrible mistake, and suddenly their future together is impossible.
Griffin has such a way with characters. Mack is deeply conflicted and struggles with his anger, yet he has a huge heart. His tenderness and love for Céce and his dogs is touching. Céce is funny, insecure about her weight (one of the things I love about Mack is that he doesn’t seem to notice that she’s a little overweight), and cares deeply about her family.
Even the supporting characters are complex and memorable. Anthony, Céce’s older brother, and Vic, the kind-hearted owner of the café where they work, are steady moral compasses throughout the story. Céce’s mother dyes her hair crazy colors, drinks too much, and bakes inedible holiday-themed cornbread to cope with the anxiety of her son’s impending deployment.
“Stay With Me” contains sexual themes and some violent scenes that make it appropriate for older teens. The book does not have a “happily-ever-after” ending, but it is full of heart, redemption, and hope for a better future. It may just make you want to take in a rescue dog.
Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, October 9, 2011.