Author: Andrew Smith
Synopsis: 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.
Winger is one of the few books out there that has such erratic story beats. One minute the book is hilarious and socially awkward, the next it’s making you facepalm, or causing you panic attacks. Sometimes these emotions are simultaneous. It’s what makes it both such a wonderfully, if sad read.
Ryan Dean West is such a memorable protagonist. He’s a loser who draws as a means to escape the realities of his private school life. However, he’s not as great a person as he sometimes pegs himself to be. Smith does an amazing job at highlighting bullying in this novel, but he presents it in two ways: Ryan Dean is bullied by the hot and popular guys of the rugby team, but he is equally a bully to those who he deems are lower than him on the loser scale. He plays victim but also bullies others, particularly friends, and doesn’t realize what’s wrong in the scenario. I liked that aspect because it made Ryan Dean’s character feel a lot more realistic and furthermore it reminds us that even victims of bullying can be bullies themselves.
And there’s something layered about this novel in the way it presents problems and resolves them. What I think I enjoyed most about Winger is that Ryan Dean behaved like an actual fourteen year old boy. I find sometimes in YA that boys are written with such maturity (usually because they are for-filling a love interest role) but here we have someone who is obsessed with wanting to be mature, and epically failing at it because his mind and body aren’t there yet. Some of the bodily humour was a bit much for me at times, but it weirdly still worked in the confines of the novel. Let’s be real though guys: at fourteen, penis was still a funny word and something ya worried about constantly.
And then there’s the ending, which I expected but didn’t at the same time. It’s gut wrenching, but on so many different levels. Something that has always made me uncomfortable in novels of bullying is levels of humiliation, as often it goes too far and is completely irreversible once it’s occurred. The amount of scarring it causes, it’s so gut wrenching and yet you question why bullying gets to those levels (meanwhile you simple wish it wouldn’t exist at all).
Ryan Dean West will always be one of those very memorable characters for me. He makes you feel angry, frustrated, but he’s so lovable and endearing at times. He’s the kind of flawed character that’s easy to see yourself in and wonder how or why things go wrong and for what reason. There’s a lot of humour and heart in Winger, but it’s death blow at the end of the story is really what will rock readers to the core and just why shit like that still happens, and why it needs to stop.