What Jane Ozkowski captures beautifully in Watching Traffic is the very sensation embodied in the debut novel’s title: Emily is overwhelmed by motion even while in a state of stillness.
It’s the summer after high-school gradulation, and Emily is working at a catering company, making egg-salad sandwiches and butter tarts, so that other people can celebrate (or, at least, recognize) all the milestone events in a lifetime, events and accomplishments which she might never experience.
“All through high school I was waiting to graduate so I could start my adult life, and now that high school is over I’m waiting for something to happen so I can figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.”
At this juncture, everything seems possible but nothing seems likely. That sense of inhabiting a small and known world, whose borders are both comforting and frustrating,that sense of being doomed to repeat all the ordinariness of the day before while all the extraordinary bits seem to be just out of reach.
Cavanaugh is the quintessential small town, but it has had to adapt to sudden and dramatic change too, its main street now virtually unrecognizable.
Emily, has been remarkably adaptive also, given her mother died when she was only three years old.
Everybody in Cavanaugh knows what Emily has survived, and their knowledge about her past interferes with her ability to dream about the future.
The narrative which has already been written about her is such a burden, that meeting someone new in town offers even more of an escape from reality than a romantic relationship might offer another teenaged girl.
And Emily has time for romance, because her best friend is seemingly overwhelmed by one of her own. Melissa is overwhelmed by her own searching and less available to Emily than ever before. “All summer Dan has been a magnet, and she’s had a metal plate where her head should be.” (If Emily was Buffy, then Melissa would be Willow, and their friend Lincoln would be Xander: however, there are no vampires in Watching Traffic.)
Emily is sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, but those who know her understand that’s a cover for her vulnerability. She has a number of folks in her corner, including her grandmother, who is the first character readers meet, beyond Emily.
It’s interesting and appropriate (given her heroine’s age and experiences) that Emily recognizes that some of the adults in her world are just as uncertain – just as frustrated, similarly caught between inertia and tumult — but doesn’t always spot the similarites.
She can see it in the guy who works in the French fry truck: “He stands with empty eyes looking out the order window toward the highway like he’s planning his escape.” It’s not that far of a stretch from mixing tuna in a basement kitchen to a food truck.
But she doesn’t recognize some of the same elements in the lives of those who are closer to her (whether because it seems inconceivable, or because of her own insecurities, or because she is preoccupied with other concerns).
This, too, aids in establishing her credibility as a young narrator and balances the savvy and clever observations that she makes (which are often snort-out-loud funny). And, as the novel unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that whether she is ready or not, Emily is going to face some surprises. (But this is a YA novel: some of those unfold beyond the last page, in readers’ imaginations.)
“Beyond these walls isn’t a world of possibilities where every door is open and every door leads to an adventure. It’s earthworms and gas lines and maybe the bones of someone’s dead cat buried in a shoebox in a backyard.”
There is a dark side to Emily’s perspective on the world which fits with her life heretofore, but her biggest supporters soften the sombre undertones. (Grandma, in particular, is a treat, with her apartment “overflowing like a dollar store threw up” and her videotape of “The Muppets Christmas Carol” prepped to play in August.)
And there is a light-hearted (but not uncomplicated) theme which emerges as the novel nearly halfway into the novel, which also casts light against the darkness. Some younger readers might find this development particularly satisfying, although the developments in Emily’s relationship with her grandmother might be more satisfying to older readers (one could argue that the elements in both story arcs are predictable, but the secondary characters are charismatic and endearing).
Readers standing on a pedestrian overpass, watching the narrative of Jane Ozkowski’s debut novel steam below, will quite likely want to throw themselves into the fray. (An act of desire not desperation.)
When Emily leaps, I hope she lands in an open-topped convertible which is passing below at exactly the right moment to secure her speedy passage.