Echo Emerson wasn’t always an outcast. Last year, she was popular, an accomplished painter, on the school dance team, and dating Luke, one of their school’s top sports players. She had everything, at least on the surface, though she was struggling to deal with her parents’ divorce and the death of her brother Aires in Afghanistan. But that was all before the incident at her mother’s house one afternoon that left her with scars on her arms and torso, and no memory of what happened. She knows her mother was responsible, and that now there is a restraining order to keep her away, but nothing more.The only thing Echo is looking forward to is leaving to go to university, but her father won’t let her take art classes anymore, pressuring her to study accountancy at university instead.
Mrs Collins, the new school counsellor, doesn’t seem much better than all the other professionals Echo’s seen since the incident, but then she offers her an opportunity to make some money, which Echo desperately wants so that she can finish fixing up the car that Aires dreamed of getting running.
To earn this money, Echo has to tutor Noah, our other narrator: failed by the social care system, angry at the world, but desperate to gain custody of his younger brother once he graduates. Echo and Noah both resent this setup at first, despite their mutual attraction, but slowly they become an important part of each others’ lives.
I have to guiltily confess that my expectations of Pushing the Limits were not that high. It’s been changed on the final edition, but the tagline on the front of the proof copy (received at the first Mira INK bloggers’ party) is ‘A bad boy. A lost girl. An unforgettable love’. I do not generally like ‘bad boys’ as love interests, and despite all the positive reviews I’d read I just didn’t think that Pushing the Limits could be that good. I was wrong. I loved it from the start.
I thought the characterisation was just fantastic. Of course I loved tentatively willful Echo, desperate to find out what exactly her mother did to her and struggling to break free from her father’s control, and determined Noah, who is full of angry emotions yet loves his brothers above all else, but the secondary characters are interesting and well-developed as well. Mrs Collins is clever but flawed, excellent at understanding the teenagers but a terrible driver, and usually right, but not all the time. Echo’s dad is demanding and controlling but we can see that he does want the best for Echo. Echo’s mother, probably the most challenging character to portray fairly, is frighteningly believable. I also loved Echo and Noah’s friends – beautiful Lila, who is always on Echo’s side, provides a nice contrast with impatient and socially-paranoid Grace, and Isaiah and Beth are essentially Noah’s true family, both caring towards him and self-involved at once. Even when the characters behave selfishly, they still have sympathetic elements, so no-one that features ‘on screen’ is easy to hate.
I loved Echo and Noah’s relationship – yes, the scenario in which they get together isn’t the most likely or original, but they seemed like a believable couple. They’re in lust from the start but when their feelings develop, it doesn’t seem rushed, and when they have relationship troubles, Noah gives Echo the space she needs, unlike some fictional couples that harass each other until they give in, something which is presented as romantic but isn’t the healthiest or most successful technique in real life.
The novel is in first person; the chapters alternate between Echo and Noah’s narration. Katie McGarry takes full advantage of this to show us the differences in the ways that Echo and Noah view each other, their relationship, their friends, Echo’s father, and life. They very rarely agree on anything immediately, and the alternating chapters make it clear to the reader when they are interpreting events and the motivations of other characters through their own biased lens. For example, Echo sees her father as overbearing and controlling, and is convinced that he doesn’t love her, but Noah sees him in quite a different way.
Some of the dialogue was a little stilted, and both narrators, but especially Noah, suffered from the oft-bemoaned YA cliché of mentioning eyes/hair/scent too much. I did roll my eyes every time someone’s scent was mentioned, but then I always do because I almost never notice anyone’s smell, and if it is them and not perfume, then it’s terrible BO, cigarette smoke, or just a nice human-y smell. Not vanilla or cinnamon or woodsmoke!
In terms of plot, I have to admit that I guessed how things would work out for Echo and Noah at just a few chapters in, but there is so much else going on in this story besides the main plot that there were still plenty of small surprises, and the story is so convincing that I didn’t mind at all. My only other criticism is that I didn’t really get much of an impression of the town in which the story is set, but again, I don’t really mind that much as the characterisation is so amazing, and as both a reader and a writer I treasure good characterisation above all else.
In short, Pushing the Limits is an incredible novel that far surpassed my expectations. It’s rare that I read or watch or listen to a story and feel completely sure that the author knows every single one of her characters inside out, the way that Katie McGarry must do. I am thrilled that I already have Dare You To waiting on my TBR pile, and will look forward to her future work – hopefully she has a long and prolific career ahead of her!