Book Review: SAVE THE DATE by Morgan Matson

save the date blurb.png

Save the Date is a sweet, modern take on the quintessential “senior year of high school” novel. The book came through on its promise of genuine laughs and cringe-worthy wedding disasters but unfortunately fell a little flat for me.

         It’s strange and disappointing that I was so underwhelmed, because in so many ways, this book seems like would be tailor-made for me. Neither my family nor, goodness knows, my childhood home are as large as Charlie’s, but I still strongly identified with Charlie’s world.

a smiling girl with a dog
there’s a dog. he’s a very good boy.

       The book describes a strong feeling Charlie gleans from seeing all her siblings together in the family kitchen, this feeling that, just for that moment, everything in the world is set right. Charlie loves her siblings deeply, but in Charlie’s natural immaturity, that love can manifest as a sort of iodizing possessiveness and even bitterness as she hoards her sibling’s time and her family’s harmony. I’ve never read another book that so well captured that element of the sibling experience—except, perhaps, Little Women.

         Matson introduces us to Charlie exactly at the moment this need to hold her family together is being tested. She’s trying desperately not to think about her upcoming move to college as she throws everything she has into creating a perfect weekend with her family. I have strong memories of the months before the first semester of college, a time when many of my friends were chomping at the bit to leave home but I just couldn’t figure out how to deal with the idea of living the home I’d grown up in. That period of my life exacerbated my natural aversion to change, which is exactly what Charlie’s experiencing.

Save the Date cover close-up
This, you can probably guess, isn’t what happens in the book, but it does convey the spirit of completely unrealistic disaster.

         This is not terribly deep literary analysis—I know this is exactly what Charlie’s experiencing because Matson says so very clearly. That was probably my biggest problem as a narrator—she’s interesting and flawed and likable, but so supernaturally self-aware. No person, much less teenager, thinks about themselves this way! The narration would explicitly spell out Charlie’s feelings, the deep-seated roots of those feelings, her motivations for doing everything—she’d even point out when she was lying to herself about something. This would never be a good thing, but is particularly uncalled for in a story as simple as this. I could have gotten the vast majority of Charlie’s interiority from her dialogue and actions—why waste all those words repeating what she thinks about everything three times?

         The book wants Charlie to arrive at the realization that real life and real people are more complicated than figures on a comic strip, but Matson doesn’t seem to apply this lesson to her writing here. The book is full of useless, two-dimensional side characters, and even many of the main characters don’t get much characterization to work with.

Grant Central Station Banner

       There were some exceptions, however. Charlie’s brother’s new girlfriend, Brooke, got some interesting stuff to do (thankfully) and Charlie’s mother was unexpectedly interesting. Other than that, however, most of the characters were not only flat, but strongly unlikable. It could sometimes be a little hard to understand why Charlie loves this family so much when they’re such selfish, mean people.

         The plot didn’t bring any interest or complexity to make up for the flat characters. With one notable exception (you’ll know it when you read it), I don’t think there was a single story beat that I wasn’t anticipating. Not because I’m clever, but because Matson only introduced a character or object if it was going to cause wedding trouble. Checkov’s… wedding cake, and missing suit, and dog named Waffles.

         These two elements, the flimsy characters and predicable story, add up to an extremely simple story. There’s nothing wrong with a simple story—not everything has to be (or should be) naturalistic and gritty! Fluff is nice! But if a story is going to carry themes of rejecting simplicity, it shouldn’t read like a picture book.

Grant Central Station comic from Morgan Matson's Save the Date
The first of the Grant Central Station comics. “Cassie” is Charlie’s GCS alter-ego.

         And if Matson was going for a light, easy beach read, then why was the book so long? 400 pages! Yikes! No reason for that!

         This review is getting pretty negative, but I do give it a solid three stars. I did laugh out loud (like, a light chuckle. a loud exhale) at several moments. The writing could be quite sweet and clever. I also loved the integration of the comics. Charlie’s mother draws a newspaper comic strip based on the family, and an actual drawn strip from the fictional Grant Central Station begins each section. I actually wish there were a few more; it’s such a clever idea and the strips are sweet.

         This is the first book of Matson’s I’ve read. I’ve heard great things about her other YA titles, especially Since You’ve Been Gone, but Save the Date didn’t leave me wanting more. I wonder if the abundance of four and five star ratings on Goodreads are due to repeat readers who came to the book with pre-loaded affection for the author that raised their impression of the book (that’s certainly something I do). At least some people enjoyed the book more than I did. Who knows—perhaps it’ll get a Netflix movie adaption that I’ll love.

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