Twenty-eight-year-old Leigh Fielding has a new chance at life thanks to Larry Resnick, a man she’s never met - or more precisely, thanks to Larry’s kidney. After five years on dialysis, Leigh is given the gift of a new kidney and a renewed sense of optimism; after all, for a long time she thought she wouldn’t see her thirtieth birthday. Inspired by Larry and his gift, Leigh does what anyone who has been hooked up to a machine three days a week would want to do – she gets out of her hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
A road trip seems like the perfect way to start her new life. Planning out stops along the way (visiting friends Meg and Jillian, dropping in unannounced on Larry’s grandmother to thank her for his gift and find out more about him), her ultimate destination is California. There her mother disappeared to when she left Leigh, her brother, James, and their father, who killed himself about a year later. However, along the way, something unexpected happens – Leigh picks up a hitchhiker. Seventeen-year-old Denise is a runaway from her foster home, hiding from a bad boyfriend. She asks Leigh to take her along to California and Leigh, feeling daring with her new lease on life, agrees to the companionship, though she doesn’t entirely trust Denise. Together they embark on a hilarious and unforgettable journey across the country and find parts of themselves scattered along the way.
Driving Sideways is charming, insightful, and wonderfully funny. It is a story of self-discovery and loss, of hope and despair. The characters are incredibly well-written, and it is easy to sympathize with their stories. Though Leigh has had renal failure, she doesn’t dwell in this place of darkness. Instead, she is irreverent and whimsical, only wanting the chance to live. After all, the doctors told her that the new kidney isn’t a cure – it is simply a treatment that may fail in time. Leigh is careful with her new kidney, not taking any chances that might put Larry in harm’s way. Sometimes that is the hardest part of reading a novel like this, watching the protagonist head down a spiral that is certain to lead to their own destruction (I can have just one drink, I’ll be okay). The reader sees it, the other characters in the book see it, yet it happens anyways – frustrating and unpleasant to read. The fact that Leigh actually takes her sickness seriously and, while tempted, does not stray from her strict diet and healthy lifestyle is refreshing and a welcome change in novels in general.
The most appealing aspect of Driving Sideways would have to be Jess Riley’s sense of humor. The novel is witty and fun with more than a few laugh-out-loud parts. Though it is about a very long roadtrip, the narrative itself doesn’t drag butt goes quickly; Riley keeps readers interested (and amused) through the twists and turns of the roads that Leigh finds herself upon. The novel has a lot of heart and emotion, but it is never cheesy or sappy, demonstrative of Riley’s talent as a writer. She manages to touch her readers and evoke the emotions she wants them to feel without telling them to do so. It is a mark of her ability to write sympathetic and believable characters that the reader really does care about.
Driving Sideways is a winning debut novel and is a wonderful showcase of Jess Riley’s talent as an author. Whether her next book is a sequel to her first or an entirely new story, I will be first in line to see what else she can do with her impressive capacity as a writer.