When I reviewed 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass in early 2010, I had no idea that it would be the first in a quartet of books now referred to as the Willow Falls Series. Happily (although four years later...) I am getting around to finishing this series, starting with Finally! While each book in this series can be read as a stand alone, it's really fun to see characters from other books in the series make cameo appearances. The one constant in all four books is the elderly Angelina D'Angelo and her duck shaped birthmark on her cheek. Where the magical elements in 11 Birthdays caused the main characters Amanda and Leo to relive the day of their eleventh (shared) birthday over and over until they repaired the damage to their life-long friendship that occurred after their 10th joint birthday party, the magic is much more low-key in Finally, and practically non-existent except for the presence of Angelina, who has an uncanny ability to show up unexpectedly.
When we first meet Rory Swenson she is stuck in a drainpipe at the Willow Falls Reservoir where her sixth grade class has gone for yet another field trip. When a strange old woman finds her, she gets a mysterious warning before being hauled out of the drainpipe. When the old woman ask Rory what the universe might want her to pause and reflect upon, she is mystified since she leads such a boring life. Even though she tries to tell the woman this, she gets this cryptic advice before being yanked out of her tight spot, "You won't get what you want, Rory Swenson, until you see what you need." But, Rory knows exactly what she needs. Having grown up the child of two frugal young parents with ideas about discipline that will seem strict and overly anxious to many readers, Rory is anxiously awaiting her twelfth birthday, one that will bring privileges with it that many of her friends have been enjoying for years. In fact, Rory has made a chart of BIG THINGS and SMALL THINGS that she will FINALLY get to do when she turns twelve, some of which she has been waiting for for years. The BIG THINGS list consists of things like getting a cell phone, having a pet, staying home alone, going to a boy-girl party, wearing make-up, babysitting, getting her ears pierced, shaving her legs, going to the mall with no parental supervision, and getting contact lenses. The SMALL THINGS list is made up of things like getting her own house key, using the stove, oven and other electrical appliances, staying up until 9:30, sitting in the front seat of the car, watching Friday the 13th, Part IX, doing her homework without having her mom check it, walking the three blocks to school alone, riding an upside down roller coaster, buying lunch in the cafeteria and picking out her own clothes.
From the start, being twelve and being allowed to to the things on her lists doesn't go the way she had expected. Rory's parents give her an armful of pamphlets of cell phones they approve of and tell her to make an educated choice and share her reasoning with them. When she finally chooses a very basic phone that allows a maximum of parental restrictions and agrees to pay for the insurance plan, her father takes her out to buy the phone. Three stores later, Rory finally has a phone which she promptly loses as she is walking from the store to her car. Leg shaving, ear piercing and contact wearing are even more painful and embarrassing than the cell phone incident, made even more so by the fact that a Hollywood movie staring the hot teen actors of the moment, Jake Harrison and Madison Waters, are using Rory's school as the location for their next big movie. Rory and her friends have been chosen to be extras, a lucrative job that also puts her in close proximity to the charming Jake and the diva-esque Madison. Jake finds Rory's predicament, as she goes from bloody, bumpy bandaged leg (shaving gone wrong) to a swollen face (allergic reaction to all natural make-up) to a cauliflower-sized ear (allergic reaction to gold) entertaining, but in a good-natured way, while Rory finds herself increasingly disenchanted and ready to stay home.
However, as things go from bad to worse for Rory, the reader sees her make a series of seemingly small observations and actions that, by the climax of the novel, add up to a truly amazing revelation and wonderful realization of the words that Angelina D'Angelo spoke to Rory at the start of the novel. Amanda and Leo, in the same grade as Rory, show up over the course of the story to give Rory nudges in the right direction here and there, inviting her to their joint birthday party where they will be planting apple trees in the hopes of bringing back the apple orchards that once covered Willow Falls. What wiped out the apple orchards? You'll have to read 11 Birthdays to find out!
13 Gifts features the cousin of a minor character from Finally as the main character with appearances from Amanda and Leo, now using blackboards to communicate, and Rory, who may or may not be dating THE Jake Harrison. The Final Present finds Leo and Amanda back as the main characters, racing back and forth through time as they try to save a young girl in a coma by revisiting her previous birthdays...
The Willow Falls Series