*Disclaimer: this review does contain spoilers later in the post!
Scroll to the end for a spoiler-free summary of the review*
Sweet Dandelion attempts a lot of really heavy themes, centered around the life of Dandelion Meadows, following a school shooting that took almost everything away from her, including her mother.
Six months later, she's recovering from being shot while living in a different state with her older brother and only living close-relative, Sage. The story begins the day before her first day of senior year at a new school. Despite how hard Sage tries to give Dani a good start in her new life, she's lost to the memories of the shooting, flickering between remembering her mom and fading into a haze.
Smeltzer really put a lot into this novel. Not only does it deal with grief and PTSD, but the main storyline focuses on Dani's attraction to her new high school guidance counselor, Mr. Lachlan Taylor.
At twenty-nine years old, Mr. Taylor is eleven years Dani's senior and in a position of power over her, which makes the whole thing a "little" taboo. With Dani required to meet with him five days a week to help her adjust to her new environment, she very quickly opens up and tells her small details of her thoughts and emotions, spurred on by the fact that Mr. Taylor is content to simply listen.
Their attraction to one another progresses fairly quickly, with Dani crushing on her guidance counselor within the first week. One of the best things about Dani's character is that she's never self-conscious, even with the trauma she's dealing with. Any self doubts do come from her difficult experiences, but she doesn't ever doubt her looks or her personality. That stood out to me as much as it stood out to Mr. Lachlan Taylor, and it made her an enjoyable character to read.
One of my favorite aspects is when Dani starts to realize that Mr. Taylor notices her too, in more than a teacherly role. She never stops to wonder if he likes her, really; she simply notes his subtle nerves and the way he hovers a little too close. They never have a confession scene; they simply falling into being attracted to one another, and knowing that they're each attracted to the other. It's refreshing.
There are a couple missteps in this novel, however. The first being the entire existence of a character named Ansel. Ansel is a senior, an artist, and the first friend that Dani makes at her new school. He is charming, endearing, funny, mature, and surprising.
Ultimately, Ansel falls for Dani, but he's quiet in the way he feels about her. Eventually he realizes that she's figured out that he likes her, and he brings it up rather than trying to hide it. When Dani shuts him down, he simply promises that he understands and that he would like to continue being best friends.
Ansel doesn't do this in the "I'll just hang around and hope my moment comes to convince you" type of way. He genuinely enjoys being around Dani and wants to be in her life no matter what. He doesn't hold his feelings over her head or make her feel guilty.
They have chemistry together. They're good together. The problem is that Smeltzer builds all this chemistry just for Ansel to be the foil to Lachlan, but she never gives Lachlan and Dani that much chemistry. They fall flat compared to all the little moments between Ansel and Dani, and their friendship (something-more-ship) that it built up for more than year.
I think part of my problem with Lachlan is that he just doesn't seem real. Twenty-nine year old school official falls for his student who just survived a school shooting and lost her mom, but yet he somehow immediately finds her attractive, and they never really talk about the consequences of what being together would mean for either of them. Lachlan's motto is "this is wrong" throughout the whole book, but he never elaborates.
Way later, he mentions that he "could lose his job," and Dani is shocked by this realization, like that wouldn't have been the first thing that crossed their minds when the whole relationship started. In this sense, Lachlan's protests and attempts to deter the relationship fall flat, as does his character.
They never bond over anything except Dani's trauma. They share books, but Dani even says she only enjoys them because they are an escape from everything she doesn't want to face. There is no time in this book where Dani sees Lachlan in his element outside of school. He is either the guidance counselor or the loner neighbor who walks his dog a lot.
It would've helped characterize Lachlan if Dani was able to see him interacting with other adults or people his own age. She should've fallen for him in his element, rather than just as her guidance counselor, where he is supposed to support and protect her. If she had seen any other side of him, I might've been able to jump on the Lachlan bandwagon.
The author wants so badly for this to be a story of the student and the guidance counselor that she doesn't listen to the characters that she's created. Or, in the world of the book, Dani doesn't listen to her own heart. She's so infatuated with the idea of being with Lachlan - someone who is less of a fully-realized person than eighteen-year-old Ansel - that she completely ignores her feelings for Ansel. Ansel and Dani were so realistic together that I was rooting for them, hoping that Smeltzer would just finally let go of Lachlan and give Ansel the ending he deserved.
The author even created a second age-gap relationship just to make her ending work. It just felt like it was a reach to keep Lachlan and Dani together.
Lastly, throughout the book, I kept wondering why Sage and Dandelion weren't mourning their mom more. Dani often had episodes of PTSD, but when she thought of her mom, it just small "I miss you" type moments. The depiction of grief felt underdeveloped, if not missing entirely. It felt like the siblings had lost their mom ten years ago, rather than just six months before (all of which they spent mostly in the hospital while Dani fought to learn how to walk again), so it doesn't seem realistic that they were able to process their grief that quickly when they were dealing with so many other things.
Sage does struggle in the book, which I liked, but it's about being a good "parent" to his sister. It's not grief in the way I would expect it to be after losing your only parent.
I know grief shows itself in many ways, but as someone who is still grieving, I couldn't identify with either of the siblings in this sense. I wish it had been included. With Dani in "therapy," it wouldn't have been hard to just give her one day where she's broken up over her mom, beyond the generic "she won't be here for prom."
Also, Dani apparently had no friends before moving because she never mentions any of them.
Overall, it was a worth the time I spent reading it! 3/5 of five stars is the equivalent of me shrugging my shoulders. Did I enjoy reading it? Yeah. Am I going to do it again? Probably not. I'll spend more time thinking about writing Ansel the ending he deserves more than anything else.
Insta love between the two MCs
Ending seemed forced/unrealistic
Portrayal of grief was underdeveloped
Lachlan was underdeveloped
The best character wasn't either of the MCs
Portrayal of the sibling relationship was great
Dani was really likeable and refreshing
PSTD was done well a lot of the time
Good characterization of the setting