Adelaide Longley’s life was neatly packaged. She was the successful recipient of a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Melbourne and her teachers were invested in helping her achieve her dream of becoming a lawyer. Her success was renowned in Emyvale. Even though she still returned home in the holidays, she carefully segregated her life in the city with the tidy town of Emyvale.
Then one morning, at the beginning of year twelve, she realises that she is miserable. She is tired of conforming to everyone’s expectations and regurgitating the teacher’s opinions instead of exploring her own views. Needing to escape, Adelaide cuts class and heads into Melbourne where she buys a one-way ticket back to Emyvale. Once home, Adelaide stands up to her family and refuses to go back to school. She agrees to work in the local historical society and study by correspondence while she reassesses her plans. As she reconnects with her friends from primary school, forms a deepening friendship with Jarrod, and becomes an active part of the community of Emyvale, she begins to value where she came from. She also begins to see that people’s lives are not as neat and tidy as they seem.
Although Untidy Towns, is not an adventure packed novel, it is an amiable story which is relevant to young adult readers. Many year eleven and twelve students would identify with Adelaide’s anxiety about year twelve and her future, and the frustration with having to conform to the curriculum instead of exploring a variety of viewpoints. It is interesting to compare the journey of Adelaide with her peers, both in Emyvale and Melbourne, as they prepare for exams and their futures. The opportunities afforded by persisting and completing year twelve are highlighted, but the reality that everyone still has the ability to plan and work towards their future is also demonstrated.
Adelaide oscillates from wanting to live in the moment, to wanting to plan her big future. At times she is aware that purely focusing on the current moment and coasting along may impact her future and the choices available to her. Her journey explores the privilege and responsibility of having a choice.
Throughout the novel Adelaide reflects on the concept of being stuck. She felt trapped at school and reacted, longing to do what she wanted. Although she escaped from the confines of school, she is concerned that her choice may result in her being stuck in Emyvale forever. She questions if this choice enabled her to do what she wanted. As Adelaide lets down her defenses and becomes part of the local community, she begins to see that many of the older people she assumed were stuck in Emyvale, made active choices that resulted in the lifestyle they have, and they do not regret those choices. She has an interesting discussion with her mum about “being stuck versus doing exactly what you want and rolling with the punches as they come”. Although you can’t control what’s going to happen you can control how you react to what happens. Her mum encourages her, when she reacts, to be kind to herself and other people.
Untidy Towns includes themes of family, the stress of year twelve exams, the pressures of life after year twelve, resilience, acceptance, love and friendship. There are some more mature themes including Adelaide’s relationship with Jarrod and the coming out of one of her friends as a lesbian. It is an enjoyable story about learning to value yourself and where you have come from, the benefit of actively make choices and working towards them and the importance of resilience and kindness when life becomes untidy.