Two boys, two bikes, and a cross-country odyssey

Can a high school friendship survive change and a disappearance?

Shift By Jennifer Bradbury Atheneum, 256 pp., $16.99 Teens

Shift is a book you’ll want to read twice. Or make that, need to read twice. At least I did. Because when you’re caught up in its breathless, brilliantly woven plot, it’s hard to stop and savor the nuances of what is also a lovely story of friendship, self-discovery, and coming-of-age.
To backpedal: “Shift” – a debut novel from author Jennifer Bradbury – begins in the middle of a mystery. When we meet protagonist Christopher Collins, he’s busy trying to settle into his freshman year at Georgia Tech and put behind him whatever happened during the summer after graduation. Something to do with a bike. And his former best friend, Win.

There had been a cycling trip from West Virginia to Washington State, one that ultimately led to Win’s disappearance – and to Chris’s world being turned upside down.

That’s the essence of Chapter 1 – and also much of the rest of the book, which alternates between chapters in the present, in which Chris is drawn into the search for Win, and chapters in the past, chronicling Chris’ and Win’s coast-to-coast odyssey.

In some ways, the boys are an unlikely duo. Not only for taking a cross-country cycling trip, but also as friends. Chris’s parents are hard-working, down-to-earth types, while Win’s alternate between detached and overbearing. Chris’s family is decidedly blue collar, while Win’s father uses his money (and lots of it) to get just about whatever he wants. While Chris seems smart, thoughtful, and likable, Win is difficult to embrace. Sometimes he comes across as impulsive and irresponsible. Mostly, he’s an enigma.

“Friends by default,” is how Chris describes their relationship. Which perhaps explains why, when Win disappears, even nine years of friendship aren’t enough for Chris to make sense of what happened. Where did Win go? And why?

But perhaps more pressing: Is Win even still alive?

What readers will come to appreciate as the pages fly by is not just the way Bradbury has so intelligently pieced together her story, but the way she never sacrifices plot for message, or vice versa. This is not to say that a well-plotted novel is categorically devoid of subtext, but Bradbury’s balancing act is one to be appreciated.

There’s plenty of action – and lots of juicy suspense. (Warning: Do not start this book unless you have time to finish it in one sitting; you won’t be able to think about anything else.) But there’s also lots to explore on the subject of identity – finding it, feeling at home in it – and about the nature of friendship.

And friendship, I might add, is another thing Bradbury can add to her list of accomplishments. There’s Chris’s and Win’s, of course, which male and female readers alike will appreciate for its competitiveness, its goofiness, and ultimately, its fierce loyalty.

But Bradbury is also interested in friendship in general: How it can change a person, and how it can change when a person grows. These changes are the growing pains that both Chris and Win experience over the course of the narrative – a constant ache, not unlike the sore muscles that plague the boys at the beginning of their ride. But while their legs grow stronger (the ache fades) and as the duo put more miles behind them, the discomfort of a shifting friendship only increases as Seattle approaches. This, too, adds to the mystery: When and if Chris finds Win, can they ever be friends again?

In the end, it’s the where-do-we-go-from-here question that the story seems most interested in wrestling with. Of course, that’s the beauty of Chris’ and Win’s journey; it is, literally, a series of opportunities for the boys to choose. Which roads will they take? Which landmarks are worth seeing?

But as with everything else in this book, the where of their odyssey is metaphorical, too. How do you meet again when you’ve taken separate roads? Or, to state it more mundanely: What happens to high school friendships after high school?

Without giving anything away, I can say that Bradbury’s novel answers this question most satisfactorily. Which is why, among other reasons, Chris’ and Win’s journey in “Shift” is one well worth undertaking. And not just once, but many times over.

Jenny Sawyer regularly reviews children’s literature for the Monitor.

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