Heartbreaking and heartfelt, this gorgeously written coming-of-age novel is an authentic look at life in a rural town for three teens trying to escape the weight of poverty, abuse, and prejudice. It's no surprise that debut author Jeff Zentner is also a professional musician -- a guitarist, singer, and songwriter -- because the language is lush and lyrical, with angsty Dill in particular being a thinker of deep philosophical musings about his poisoned bloodline, his overwhelming and seemingly unrequited love for Lydia, and his changing faith. Lydia isn't perfect; she's a bit of a cultural snob who can't wait to flee to the streets of New York City with worldly young fashionistas and celebrities who follow her popular blog Dollywould (after her idol and fellow Tennesseean Dolly Parton). But she also knows how lucky she is to have found Dill and Travis and how their friendship saved her from being a lonely outcast (her professional parents are considerably more well off than most in Forrestville). Lydia's flaws make her that much more realistic, just as Travis' impressive size belies a geeky devotion to a Game of Thrones-like fandom, and a gentleness with his mama create a character who's so unique and lovable that you'll ache for him when his father hurls insults his way.
Despite the alternating third-person points of view among the three best friends, the title and the story ultimately belong to Dill. Plagued with a name belonging to a grandfather and a father who've both surrendered to darkness (grief in his grandfather's case; faith and child pornography in his father's case), only child Dill is crushed by the bleakness of his future. His put-upon mother demands that he take a full-time job to settle his father's considerable legal fees, making sure to assert that it's his duty to honor his parents and pay off their debts. Meanwhile, at least fanboy Travis has Amelia and his books for escape, and Lydia has a future being a young fashion maven. Dill's existential ennui and depression at the thought of losing Lydia takes up a lot of space in the story, but don't despair -- hope is there in the form of a song and a touch. Zentner's story is at times difficult to read, but even in the darkest of moments, the unconditional friendship among Dill, Lydia, and Travis is full of light, love, and laughter.