Going into it, I was excited to dive into what seemed like an interesting coming-of-age story centered around books, friendship, and growing up. Unfortunately, while the book had some strong moments, overall it fell short of my expectations. In this review, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot before sharing my personal thoughts on where the book succeeded and where it missed the mark for me.
|August 29, 2019
Where to Purchase
Shelf Life follows 16-year-old Ruth, a passionate reader living in a small coastal Australian town. Ruth works at the local library, and finds comfort in the rows of books that allow her to escape from her tumultuous home life. Her mother is depressed and distant, while her father buries himself in his work at the auto shop.
At the start of the summer before her senior year, Ruth is eager to reconnect with her best friend Cat, who had been away for months on an international trip. However, when Cat returns, their relationship is strained and Ruth struggles to understand the changes in her friend. At the same time, Ruth finds herself growing closer to one of the library patrons, an older woman named Milly Johnson, who provides Ruth wisdom and maternal warmth that she lacks at home.
As the summer progresses, Ruth tries to navigate shifting friendships, new romantic feelings, and uncertainty about what the future may hold. The book culminates at the end of the summer, when a confrontation leaves Ruth questioning what she thought she knew about Milly Johnson and forces her to realize that change is inevitable, no matter how desperately she wants to cling to the memories and comforts of childhood.
Shelf Life shone brightest in its early chapters, when we were first getting to know Ruth and immersing ourselves in her world. Ruth felt like a fully realized character right from the start – her love of reading and nuanced voice made her an engaging protagonist to follow. I enjoyed the initial focus on her friendship with Cat, as well as the meaningful role the library played in her life as a refuge. The descriptions of this small coastal town were vivid and transportive.
There were some poignant moments exploring universal themes of change, growing up, and letting go. In particular, the friendship between Ruth and Milly was touching, as Milly provided guidance at a time when Ruth felt increasingly alone. Their bond highlighted how transformative intergenerational connections can be.
Franchini also wove in literary references and allusions in smooth and meaningful ways. As a bookworm myself, I loved how books functioned almost as additional characters through the quotes and magical realism elements. The prose was lyrical without being overly flowery or pretentious.
Where It Fell Short
While I was initially drawn in, there were a few too many plot threads and themes introduced throughout, and not all were developed to their full potential. The strained relationship between Ruth and Cat became repetitive, lacking enough nuance or growth to sustain the remainder of the book.
The magical realism aspects, like quotes coming alive off the page, were initially whimsical but became gimmicky and distracting by the end. I was also craving more resolution with the storylines involving Ruth’s parents, her first love interest Connor, and even Milly’s backstory. Instead, these were touched upon but never delved into deeply.
My biggest criticism is that the narrative tension relied too heavily on the late-stage reveal about Milly’s past. This felt intentionally misleading, and made me question Ruth as an unreliable narrator. The melancholic atmosphere and meandering plot may appeal to some readers, but for me the pacing dragged significantly in the second half. I never quite reconnected with Ruth’s emotional journey after feeling so aligned early on.
I appreciated Franchini’s ambition with Shelf Life, and there were elements that shone. However, the execution ultimately fell short for me. The strong start gave way to a wandering, unsatisfying conclusion, with too many threads left unexplored. While moments captured the magic of books and reading, others came across clichéd or lacking emotional resonance.
I believe there are readers out whom this reflective, character-driven narrative will really speak to. The themes of change and growing up are universally powerful. For me though, I wanted more momentum in Ruth’s story and character development to maintain my investment from start to finish. The pieces were there, but didn’t fully come together into a cohesive journey. That said, I would be interested to see what Franchini writes next, given her eye for language and emotion in the novel’s stronger sections. Shelf Life shows promise, even if it wasn’t entirely my cup of tea.