YA readers may well be familiar with novels set in New York City or on the West Coast, often featuring affluent homes. This is different. Rico lives in Norcross, a district of Metro Atlanta, Georgia. She’s a High School Senior, a good student, no problems with her grades. But she’s got no chance of going on to College. For a couple of years, she’s worked long shifts after school and at weekends at the Gas ‘n’ Go convenience store, helping her Mama pay the rent on an apartment they can’t afford. Her mother works 70 hour weeks as a cleaner, since she’s determined to raise Rico and young son Jax in a good neighbourhood with good schools. There’s no safety net for them; they can’t afford Health Insurance and Mama won’t apply for public assistance such as Medicaid. So when Jax is hospitalised for several weeks, Rico knows the bill for more than three hundred thousand dollars will put them out on the street. Rico doesn’t have time to hang out with friends. Though she can’t see it, we realise anger and resentment are never far away.
One day, the Mighty Millions Lottery Jackpot is: Two. Hundred. And. Twelve. Million. Dollars. (Look, it seems every YA novelist currently deploys full-stops this way, so why not?) There are two winning tickets, half the Jackpot apiece. And one of them was bought at the Gas ‘n’ Go in Norcross, and the ticket owner hasn’t cashed it in. Rico thinks she knows who bought it – she’s pretty sure she sold it to her. If she could track the buyer down, maybe she could alert her to her good fortune and maybe some of the winnings might come her way. So her search begins – miles of driving, tracing a taxi driver, visiting the Victorious Faith Chapel (unlike any Church a UK reader might know), meeting strange old ladies in strange old houses, pretending to be a pregnant prospective buyer touring homes with estate agents, and almost breaking into a storage unit to search through a deceased person’s wardrobe. Always edging closer.
Rico is not alone. A coincidence on that fateful night at the Gas ‘n’ Go leads her to recruit Alexander (‘Zan’) Macklin, ‘varsity quarterback, all round teen dream’ and heir to a million dollar business producing the finest toilet paper in all America and possibly the World. While the novel is structured around the search for that ticket, it’s more interestingly about the searches of Rico and Zan for themselves through each other. Their financial circumstances could not be more different, but both feel they have no choices about what to do with their own lives. Just as Rico is absorbed by caring for Mama and Jax, Zan’s path into heading up the toilet paper business is predetermined. The way his father sees things, there’s no need for Zan to waste time going to College.
The narrative is punctuated by brief interjections from inanimate objects: the lost winning ticket, a taxi, a Waffle House Saltshaker, the sheets on Zan’s bed. It’s a device which readers might feel is contrived, jarring with the comic naturalism of the rest of Rico and Zan’s story. Nic Stone’s dialogue is charged with the super-fast wit YA readers expect, but there is a serious subtext. Rico hates Zan’s arrogant assumptions – ‘You just do whatever the hell you want’. He never asks, he simply expects her to accept his help, the rides in his upmarket jeep, his easy money and so on. But Rico’s anger means she misses Zan’s genuine kindness, and she’s blind to his own confusions. On the other hand, he’s exasperated by her stubborn pride. Each has much to give – to teach – the other, and that is very entertainingly done through a rapid narrative which culminates in a surprising revelation and an invitingly open ending.