Alecia Whitaker wraps up her Bird Barrett series with this novel about a country singer who struggles to find balance in her life after becoming famous.
Eighteen year old Bird Barrett is on tour with her best friend Stella Crossley who is her assistant, her brother Dylan who plays in the band. and the rest of her crew. Bird's brother Dylan has taken a year off college to tour with her while her parents stay at home helping her granddad recover from a broken hip.
Bird's Shine Our Light tour will visit forty-nine cities in North America over the next nine months and is the result of months of work with the Open Highway team.From the beginning of the tour, Bird begins to suspect that Stella has a crush on Dylan, making her feel a bit out of sorts.
In Los Angeles to do tour promotion, Bird runs into her nemesis, Kayelee Ford and twenty-three-year-old British playboy, Colton Holley. Holley invites Bird to his new nightclub in Las Vegas which Bird will visiting in a few weeks on her birthday. As the tour progresses Bird finds herself often away on related business and when she is back she begins to realize that Stella and Dylan might be an item. This makes Bird feel like an outsider on her tour and brings back memories of her failed relationship with Adam Dean.
In Las Vegas the concierge at the Venetian manages to arrange for Bird to visit Holley's nightclub with Stella and Dylan. They run into Colton Holley who treats them to a scrumptious dinner before heading to Club Colt. At the club they hit up the blackjack tables and have unlimited bottle service. Bird becomes increasingly intoxicated to the point where she has difficulty walking. When Colton comes on to her, Dylan steps in and eventually Bird refuses Colton's advances. Back in her suite, Bird is so drunk she pukes and passes out. The next morning a very hung over Bird gets through rehearsal but Dylan
reminds her that this is her tour and she is the boss, responsible for everyone on the tour.
When the tour is in Salt Lake City, Bird finally confronts Stella about her blossoming relationship with Dylan. She tells Stella that she wishes she had told her about her feelings towards Dylan. After Salt Lake City, Stella tells Bird that Dylan indeed does like her. Bird indicates to Stella that she does not want to be caught in "the middle if there's any drama" and she doesn't "want to be the third wheel" on dates.
Bird attends the VMA with Troy, her publicist Anita and her mentor, former country singer Bonnie McLain. She's been nominated for Best Video with a Message for
her hit Shine Our Light. While Bird has on a modest red cocktail dress, her rival Kayalee is dressed in a purple bandage dress that is very revealing. Even worse,Kayalee's provocative performance lights up social media much to Bird's annoyance.
After the VMAs, Bird learns that her opening act has suddenly quit citing a number of excuses. Bonnie suggests that Bird ask Adam Dean, who has just released his first single, to open for her. With Adam on the tour, Bird finds herself feeling the same attraction to him that she had last year. But can she and Adam keep it strictly business? Should she even try? And as the pressures of touring and fame begin to mount, Bird finds herself struggling to maintain a balance in her own life.
The Way Back Home is a wonderful conclusion to the Wildflower series about a young singer getting a break and becoming the next country music superstar. It's hard not to see the parallels to real life star Taylor Swift's rise to stardom as the premiere country music performer in 2008 and 2009. To that end The Way Back Home does a good job portraying the pressures a rising young performer faces when breaking into the music industry.
In the beginning of the novel Bird recognizes how many people are depending upon her. "Over a hundred and fifty people have jobs because of this tour. It's massive, and if I let myself think about the risk involved,it causes me major anxiety. A lot of people are counting on me."
Bird struggles to retain some sort of normalcy in her life, attempting to maintain her friendships while dealing with the day to day pressures of traveling from city to city and performing. Her publicist works hard controlling Bird's image and we see how every situation can be easily taken out of context and exploited either against or for that image. For example, on her eighteenth birthday, Bird celebrates by going to a club but drinks to much. She quickly comes to understand that as a public person there is no privacy for her and that every action will be scrutinized. As a result, Bird begins to feel less and less in control of her own life.
"Okay, yeah, I am the boss. Except I'm not. I still have to answer to my parents, my label, and my fans. Oh, and I'm the bad guy, but they were both there partying with their boss last night."
The pressure is intensifies when a reporter with Rolling Stone magazine spends a few days with the tour. But when the reporter, Jase, ends her stint with a tough interview that results in Bird losing her cool. the stress causes Bird to argue with Stella and to tell Adam that she longs to be a regular person again, "No autographs or pictures or screaming fans." A series of situations gradually lead Bird to come close to a breakdown; she refuses to sing at a rodeo when it's discovered she's in attendance and the Rolling Stone article makes her out to be a "judgmental and hypocritical Goody Two-shoes who plays the part of the wholesome all-American girl but parties behind the scenes." She also treats Stella badly when she misses a wardrobe cue during a performance, and lashes out at her brother and Adam. In desperation, Bird reaches out to her mentor and former country music star, Bonnie who whisks her away to her farm to help Bird recover and refocus.
Bird tells Bonnie that she feels like she's living a lie, that everyone believes she's "this charming, sweet, perfect role model" when in reality she wants to be different from that sometimes and that she can't say anything off script because "my team is carefully curating my aura..." But Bonnie tells her that with today's social media almost everyone has a public persona that isn't real and that maybe she's a bit jealous because "your family gets to go eat wherever they want whenever they want. And your friends can date and make new friends without ever wondering if the people they meet have ulterior motives...And they all get to make mistakes...but they all get to make their "just human" mistakes behind closed doors." Bonnie helps Bird recognize that "life is short, every moment spent with the people you love is precious, and every moment spent doing what you love is a gift." With this new perspective, Bird returns to the tour and works hard to repair her relationships with Stella, Dylan and most importantly, Adam.
At times Bird almost seems too good - she wins two Grammys; one for Best Country Song and a second for Best Country Album. When Kayalee Ford crashes and burns at the awards and ends up puking drunk in the bathroom, Bird rescues her and later on with the help of Bonnie gets her into rehab. Bird and Bonnie visit Kayalee leading the two girls to end their feud. Bird looks beyond the Kayalee who has hurt her and recognizes "the pressure to make sure your parents didn't sacrifice everything for nothing, the pressure to make it to the top, the pressure to hone a public image, and then the pressure to maintain it." Although someone cheesy, the scene is in keeping with the character Whitaker has created and developed throughout her three novels.
The novel's subplot is the reappearance of Adam Dean and Bird's second chance to start a romantic relationship with the guy she's been crushing on for some time now. After attempting to play it cool when Adam joins the tour, Bird acknowledges "The feelings I've always had for him have taken root in my heart again..." Complicating matters is the fact that Bird is Adam's boss. Their relationship is kept under wraps so that it can be revealed to the public at the right time. Bird is very accepting of Adam's difficult and troubled family situation and supportive of his career and he in turn is able to support her because he understands the pressures of working in the music industry. Readers will be rooting for them as their love blossoms.
Capitalizing on the current fame of Taylor Swift, Whitaker's The Way Back Home will probably appeal to younger teens who are also Swift fans. The relatively clean romance and the positive messages in this novel about living life with appreciation and gratitude along with the themes of forgiveness, the importance of friends and family all add up to make a good story.
The Way Back Home by Alecia Whitaker
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2016