Girl on the Fer­ris Wheel

Julie Halpern, Len Vlahos

  • Review
By – December 13, 2021

Dmitri Digrindakis and Eliana Hoff­man are sopho­mores at a Min­neso­ta high school who meet and rec­og­nize that they are drawn to one anoth­er. Dmitri is from a close-knit Greek-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly whose pro­nounced eth­nic iden­ti­ty some­times embar­rass­es him, while Eliana is Jew­ish. Both teens are sen­si­tive and tal­ent­ed, but under­ly­ing ten­sions, espe­cial­ly Eliana’s strug­gles with depres­sion, give their rela­tion­ship the highs and lows of a Fer­ris wheel ride. The first-per­son nar­ra­tion alter­nates between the two pro­tag­o­nists, cre­at­ing an inti­mate and con­vinc­ing pic­ture of two young adults caught up in the inten­si­ty of first love.

Char­ac­ters’ imper­fec­tions play a real­is­tic part in this nov­el. Eliana is intro­spec­tive and self-crit­i­cal, but she can also be absorbed in her own emo­tions to the exclu­sion of empathiz­ing with the boy who cares for her deeply. Dmitri often lacks aware­ness that his atten­tion can be over­whelm­ing. Just as the devel­op­ing bond between them grows grad­u­al­ly, there is no one moment when it begins to fray. Dmitri is the drum­mer in a band called Unex­pect­ed Tur­bu­lence, a name that vir­tu­al­ly defines the emo­tion­al chaos of adolescence. 

There is a marked dis­par­i­ty between the impor­tance of Dmitri’s Greek back­ground and Eliana’s Jew­ish one. Dmitri’s par­ents are immi­grants; Eng­lish is their sec­ond lan­guage. His grand­moth­er, Yia Yia, lives with the fam­i­ly; the influ­ence of both her tra­di­tion­al back­ground and her flex­i­bil­i­ty about Amer­i­can cus­toms is sig­nif­i­cant in her grandson’s life. Dmitri jokes about his par­ents’ val­ues and the reli­gious edu­ca­tion that has brain­washed” him. Yet he con­tin­ues to be immersed in the lan­guage, food, and church of his com­mu­ni­ty, even if he feels ambiva­lence about them. Eliana’s ties to her Jew­ish her­itage are ten­u­ous, by com­par­i­son. There are ref­er­ences to her bat mitz­vah, and to a fam­i­ly Hanukkah par­ty held after for the hol­i­day for the sake of convenience. 

When Eliana meets Dmitri’s fam­i­ly, there is ten­sion and humor regard­ing their curios­i­ty about Jews, but no hint of anti­semitism. Eliana’s par­ents seem uncon­cerned about Dmitri’s back­ground. The uneven nature of their feel­ings about being Greek and Jew­ish is not a flaw in the nov­el, but rather an accu­rate reflec­tion of social real­i­ties. Dmitri’s par­ents and extend­ed fam­i­ly are root­ed in their past, while Eliana’s Jew­ish par­ents have appar­ent­ly dis­tanced them­selves from an iden­ti­ty that may still mat­ter to them but no longer defines who they are.

Julie Halpern and Len Vla­hos cap­ture the truth of young love through pro­tag­o­nists who are indi­vid­u­als, with thoughts and dia­logue that are both con­sis­tent with who they are. There is lit­tle exag­ger­a­tion or gra­tu­itous dra­ma, even when Eliana’s recur­ring depres­sion threat­ens to upend her life. Sec­ondary char­ac­ters, includ­ing Eliana’s assertive best friend, Jan­i­na, and Dmitri’s preter­nat­u­ral­ly mature younger broth­er, Nicky, are also thor­ough­ly believable.

Eliana accu­rate­ly describes the fright­en­ing loss of con­trol over her emo­tions when depres­sion descends. Dmitri also suf­fers, unable to help her and unwill­ing to give up his efforts. The authors achieve a bal­ance in evok­ing empa­thy for both char­ac­ters, each one strug­gling to work through sad­ness and loss.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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