by your side is just another example of the perfect combination of teen angst and romance, but i think it's the fact that her characters are so relatable that elevates her books to the next level for me. autumn collins is your girl-next-door, she gets along with her family, she has a solid group of friend and a cute potential hook-up. her life is following its script and she has nothing to complain about.
except in the most improbable way she manages to get herself left behind on a group outing and locked in the town library for the long weekend. the first couple of chapters we see autumn run through the initial panic and fear, and then her desperate attempts to get someone to notice that she's been locked in. when she realizes that she isn't actually alone though, she almost loses it. except then she realizes that she knows who she's been locked in with. dax miller, the juvenile delinquent possible drug addict that she's convinced doesn't know her name.
except he does. and she thinks maybe he's not actually a drug addict. and as she teases information out of him with her relentless cheeriness, she realizes that maybe there's more to dax miller than meets the eye. and maybe it's time her life veered a little off script. because here's the even stranger thing, when she's with dax she feels calm and safe, she knows what she wants even if she can't say it. and she doesn't usually feel that way, usually she's struggling to keep her anxiety in check.
her anxiety has had a hold on her for so long, it affects every aspect of her life. her family, whose concern and overprotectiveness she finds stifling and because she doesn't want to worry them she often hides the truth about her feelings from them. and with her friends, she's embarrassed about her condition, so she hides the truth about it and often finds herself abandoning outings or removing herself from situations because they become too much.
so being trapped in the library is terrible for her anxiety. yet at the same time, she is more herself around dax because she doesn't need to hide anything from him. and he becomes someone she can trust herself to be around. even when the worst happens and she completely loses it, he is there for her and proves himself to be a calming and welcome presence in her life. and being able to care for her does something for dax too. he's had a tough life, an absent father, a drug-addicted mother who abandoned him for meth, neglectful foster parents. people have been giving up on dax miller his whole life. and with autumn he finds someone who actually pays attention. autumn wants to know more about dax every chance she gets. she keeps making up games to find ways to get him to answer questions about himself. at first he is reluctant, but then as she gets under his skin he finds himself opening up to her in ways he never expected--i mean, we don't actually spend time in his head to know this, but it's pretty clear that he never expected to connect with autumn the way he does. his whole goal was to turn 18 and leave everything behind. he just wants to be free. and then autumn makes him realize that there are ways to be free without being completely alone.
this book does so many things well, because it would be so easy to say "oh this is one of those spoiled princess meets boy from wrong side of the tracks and they find true love stories," it is so much more than that. the way autumn struggles with her anxiety is so real and honest. and dax's struggles in the foster care system are also real and honest. he doesn't get some crazy fairy tale ending with his long-lost mother. but at the same time, he's not "less than" for being a product of the system. and having autumn's support makes it so that he doesn't feel so alone, and that is something beautiful. and on top of all this all the other characters are so likable. even jeff, who plays dax's romantic foil. he's a good guy, he just not the right guy for autumn.
i could gush about this book forever. so instead i will say you should just go read it. i loved it. i loved the characters. i finished the book a couple of days ago and they are still with me.