When You Least Expect It by Lorna Schultz Nicholson

Review by Audrey Wahking

Red Deer Press, 2021

444 pages, paperback, $14.95 CAD, 978-0-88995-641-4

Young adult, high school

Realistic Fiction

“Twenty,” I called out in a gasp.

The boat picked up a little. My legs seared and my breathing was like rapid bursts. In and out. In and out. I kept sliding and pushing.

Keep going, Holly. You can do it! Dig. Dig. Dig.

Fifteen hundred meters.

“Less than half a boat,” said Eleanor.

We were catching them! Could we? I had to push just a little harder. Harder. Harder.

“Last two-fifty,” said Eleanor.

“Take it up!” I yelled.

We were moving. Pushing. Could we do it?

The horn blared, announcing a boat was across the finish line. Then a second horn.

Seventeen-year-old Holly Callahan lives to row. She has it all figured out: make the national rowing team, go to Worlds with her best friend Kash, get recruited by Penn or UVic, and leave her small town and messy home life behind. But what happens when the summer she worked so hard for slips out of her reach, and she is forced to stay home with a mother who doesn’t believe in her?  

Unexpectedly stranded in her small town for the summer, Holly struggles to figure out how to fill her time. But Holly is no quitter: she finds a job (if only to get away from Stu—her mother’s perennially optimistic boyfriend), joins the recreational rowing club (even though the members are more obsessed with the instructor than rowing), and hits the gym. During a run, she meets Alan: an ex-rowing coach who understands her love for the sport and offers to coach her in his single boat. Nicholson’s novel follows Holly during her transformative summer as she navigates the choppy waters of being a young athlete, living in a blended family, and experiencing first love.

Holly’s voice and determination are the strength of the novel. An independent and fierce female protagonist, she never gives up. Holly’s emotions are palpable throughout the book—I felt her devastation when she didn’t make the team, her annoyance at Stu’s chirpy cross-stitch quotes, and her frustration at Alan’s tough-love coaching methods. At the same time, I knew Holly’s perspective was limited and quite self-centered; as a teenager, she has little patience or understanding for anything outside her own desires, including her mother’s and Stu’s feelings. To her credit, Nicholson captures the essence of Holly’s young, earnest voice as she matures over the novel.

Another strength of Nicholson’s book is its focus on the interesting, and somewhat niche, sport of rowing. As a rowing coach herself, Nicholson’s knowledge of the sport comes through, lending authenticity to Holly’s rowing scenes and mindset. However, Nicholson could have explained more rowing terminology and techniques at the beginning of the novel, as this would help non-rowers visualize Holly’s actions and become more immersed in the scenes. For example, Alan frequently coaches Holly to ‘feel the bubbles’ under the boat—a phrase that likely makes sense to rowers, but ultimately took me out of the story. 

While Nicholson’s novel is enjoyable, I found the descriptions of Holly’s Black coworker Tim to be somewhat reductive. As she falls in love with him, Holly explains how witnessing her great-uncle marry a Black woman led her to accept interracial relationships and call out racism (at this point, I assumed Holly was white, though the novel never confirmed or denied this). Holly’s explanation as to why she accepts interracial relationships and isn’t racist felt underdeveloped; exposure to different cultures can definitely help build empathy, but treating others with basic respect shouldn’t need justification. In addition, the novel tends to assume whiteness as default since it does not emphasize the race of any other character except for Tim: “[Tim] was buff, as Amaya had said, but what she didn’t tell me was that he was Black and had a beautiful smile” (139). While I appreciate the novel’s attempt to include some diversity, I felt like Tim’s character was somewhat underdeveloped and the descriptions of Tim’s physical appearance felt slightly objectifying.

Despite the occasional awkwardness in writing style, Nicholson’s novel flows, capturing the highs and lows of Holly’s summer experiences. In Holly, Nicholson creates a strong, determined, and sympathetic main character, who has a lot of growing, rowing, and living left to do.

Audrey Wahking is a lover of well-told stories, whether they are shaped as films, TV shows, or novels (though books remain her first love).  She is currently studying at UBC Vancouver and living her own coming-of-age story.

2 thoughts on “When You Least Expect It by Lorna Schultz Nicholson

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