GUYS. This book. I don't even know how to start. Wow. Just wow. I should probably start making sense sometime soon. Um. Okay.
So a month ago, I saw this review for The Final Four by Paul Volponi. And I was like, hmm, sounds kinda cool, I'll keep it in mind. But seriously, it's about basketball and Overcoming Your Past and other things of which I'm not a huge fan, so I put it off.
But when I made my Amazon order last week, I was feeling down, so I kind of doubled the usual amount of books I get every month (bad for my bank account, good for retail therapy), and THE FINAL FOUR made the cut.
Then I got the shipment today. I read Spellbound first (a great conclusion to a good trilogy. Probably the first time I've ever seen a 3rd book be the best), and then grabbed THE FINAL FOUR because it was kinda short and March Madness is currently happening.
(Sidenote: UK-vs-Louisville in the Final Four! I would not care, except I go to school in Lexington where everyone bleeds blue, so it's imposible NOT to care, therefore I care. And two schools from the same state in the Final Four? That's a big deal. Saturday at 6.)
I did not expect to skip dinner. I did not expect to be so moved by certain characters and storylines that I actually had to take breaks (but like short ones, not dinner-length ones). I did not expect to be so torn between the two teams that, at the very end, I could not bring myself to read the next paragraph declaring the winner.
(Literally. I sat there, my hand covering the next paragraph, rereading the page before, trying to decide WHAT THE HELL I WANTED TO HAVE HAPPENED.)
Okay, an actual review now.
Plot: It's the Final Four of March Madness (I'm sure you've gathered that), and it's powerhouse Michigan State* against Cinderella story Troy. The book is in four of the players' perspectives, and it intersperses the last 20 minutes of play with scenes from their pasts. Yeah, you read that right--this book takes place over 20 minutes.
But, of course, it's CERTAINLY not just about basketball. You're looking at a story that takes basketball and uses it to show all sorts of life lessons and life skills, which, let's be honest, is what all sports do. Each character is so heartbreakingly desperate for this championship.
There's Malcolm who--dear Lord, you want to hate because he's so terrible, but everything makes sense and he needs this so you need this for him and I'm honestly not sure I'm that different from him. There's a scene where he's been let down by his team, and he says "I can't win this game on my own." And it's verbatim what I've thought this year sometimes on relays. I can only make up so much ground or Why are my teammates sucking so much? Being talented closes you off. Puts you ahead. But it also is your greatest downfall. Malcolm's the only freshman of these characters, and we see his immaturity, but we also see his passion.
Then MJ, Michael Jordan, who has lived all his life in the shadow of his better known namesake, who just wants a chance. And I related to MJ even more, because even though I'm now more like Malcolm (as a big fish in a small pond), I spent the first 16 years of my life finishing second in everything. Second sucks. I think I wanted MJ's success more than anyone else's, which was what made me very confused as to which team I wanted to win.
Crispin Rice is the love-story-character here. He proposed to his girlfriend after a buzzer-beating shot, and now the whole nation has their eyes on his love life. I can't imagine that kind of pressure, especially when you're no longer sure of the relationship. I didn't get to know Crispin as well as wanted. He seemed, to me, the smartest, the most driven, the one who, interestingly, cared about basketball the least. And that was why I didn't connect to him. This game wasn't going to kill him like it would the others.
But Roko Bacic seemed to me the heart and soul of the game. He was in it for the love of basketball, a joy and a freedom that came with playing. There's an interview with him and Malcolm early on, and it just set up the most interesting dynamic--Malcolm, who treats the game like it is his opponent, and Roko, who loves it more than anything else. They've both had ridiculously tough lives, and turned into such different people.
There were a couple other characters from Troy who interested me and I wished I'd seen more of--Aaron Boyce, another starter who did as much for the game as Roko and Crispin--and Hope, Crispin's fiancee/girlfriend who I felt like got a very bad billing at the end. The coaches were both great, very inspiring and strong and clearly coming from different programs (the king-vs-Cinderella).
I was a little disappointed by the ending, mostly because we see nothing of the repercussions for one team and only like two pages on after-the-fact for the other team. Still, an extremely satisfying read.
The last thing I want to talk about concerning this book is the setting.
It's YA. Malcolm's 18, but the rest of the characters are in their 20s. It's a college sports story. So is The Art of Fielding, which was marketed very successfully as adult. I, of course, immediately picked up on this because my MS is a college sports story set over a short period of time during the national championship. (Of course, mine has a murder and is much less intense sportsally (shh, we'll pretend that's a word), but it's a similar setting.)
The interesting thing about this setting is that it's not a college setting. It's nationals. Nationals is not college. Not even close. That's like saying just because a 10-year-old is a vituoso who spends all her time with adults, her story is adult. NO. The story makes the genre. Not the setting.
Nationals is a big bundle of intensity, an atmosphere buzzing with tension. It's as dissimilar to school as, I dunno, the streets of NYC to a remote jungle village. It's not a college book. It's not a college story. It's a nationals story.
Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend you go grab THE FINAL FOUR right now, preferably this week so you can get obsessed with basketball before the Final Four games on Saturday!
*This is ironic, of course, because MSU lost in their Elite Eight game this year. Oops.