Review: Winger by Andrew Smith
Warnings: Mature themes
Summary: Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.
With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.
Filled with hand-drawn infographics and illustrations and told in a pitch-perfect voice, this realistic depiction of a teen’s experience strikes an exceptional balance of hilarious and heartbreaking.
I had been looking forward to Winger for a really long time. I’d heard nothing but good things about it and I was beyond excited to finally get it in the mail. Winger is a novel narrated through a journal by Ryan Dean West, a 14-year-old junior at Pine Mountain Academy who has to navigate the 11th grade at O-Hall, the dorm for the problem kids at the boarding school.
Though I enjoyed Winger immensely, I had some problems with it, but I’ll get back to that. On the flip side, Winger is an achingly true-to-life account of the mind of a 14-year-old boy that makes you chuckle out loud and enjoy the book. However, there were some great flaws in the story that I can’t look over which are the lack of female characters and the treatment of the only openly gay character in the story. I usually don't discuss spoilers in my reviews, but the nature of the novel calls for a more in-depth discussion.
[Spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t read. Skip ahead for the conclusion.]
Ryan Dean is a common 14-year-old boy, oblivious to his problematic behavior, which is often considered passable throughout the novel. One of my main issues was his relationship with Annie, his best friend, whom he constantly objectified and thought he deserved to some extent. This in particular was somewhat dealt with toward the end, however discouraging it was that he did, in the end, get the girl despite his thoughts.
The only person in the novel who had his head screwed on straight was Joey, an openly gay senior boy who ends up becoming Ryan Dean’s best friend. Every conversation involving Joey never failed to point out his sexuality, and though Ryan Dean often commented on how they [read: every male in the novel] shouldn’t focus on that so much, he continues to clarify that he’s straight even though it couldn’t be clearer, as he objectifies pretty much every woman in the novel. Every male character (except arguably, the protagonist) makes some sort of homophobic remark, and Kevin, a character “cool” with Joey’s sexuality and not bothered by being called ‘homo’ is commended by his peers because of it, because he’s basically the only decent guy about it in this whole thing, which is sad. The most devastating part is that even though Joey is the light of the novel and the one that kept Ryan Dean in check with his attitude and acted as his conscience (he, at one point, did call out Ryan Dean on his blatant and disgusting objectification of women), he was, in the end, beaten to death by two boys from the school, one of which had chased him endlessly despite him hiding his sexuality from everyone. I felt that this was an extremely unfair ending for Joey, the kindest and best boy there was in the entire story, and in the end he was only merely used as a plot device, which doesn’t do his wonderful and bright character justice.
Speaking of women, there are almost no speaking female characters except Annie, Megan, and briefly, Rachel Altman, Annie’s mother. All the others appeared only momentarily throughout the narrative and when they were, Ryan Dean never failed to fantasize about them. I understand that part of what makes this novel so authentic is that 14-year-old boys do have warped minds and do have warped perceptions of women due to their lack of experience, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he constantly made advances on Annie despite her clear objection (and even though she did, in the end, ended up liking him back), which showed some definite lack of respect. Women in this novel are treated as territory, as showed by Chas’ furious reaction to Ryan talking with Megan and Ryan Dean’s violent tantrum upon finding out JP had asked Annie out to the Halloween dance, which resulted in JP getting a glaring black eye and earned Ryan Dean 18 stitches. This was my biggest and most disturbing problem throughout Winger. I do commend Ryan Dean for apologizing to everyone in the end, and for realizing his actions were wrong, but this was only about 10 pages from the end, which are, coincidentally, the only 10 pages we’re given to mourn Joey. Personally, I just think the book ended on a strange note.
Overall, I really enjoyed Winger despite the problems I might’ve had with it. I found myself rooting for Ryan Dean’s character growth (which I did see some of in his last-ditch attempts to apologize), and his realization toward becoming a decent young man.
I gave this book 4/5 stars on goodreads