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Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen is a contemporary YA romance novel published in 2009. The story follows protagonist Auden West, an academically accomplished, shy insomniac and child of divorce. When Auden decides to spend her summer before college with her father Robert, stepmother Heidi, and newborn half sister in a small beach town, she undergoes a personal transformation. Auden meets Eli, a fellow insomniac and professional biker, who helps her find her inner child, let go of high expectations, and learn the meaning of love. Along for the Ride won the Best Books for Young Adults award in 2010. It was adapted into a Netflix movie of the same title in 2022.
This study guide refers to the 2009 hardcover edition published by Viking.
Auden West, the 18-year-old female protagonist, is an academically brilliant, introverted insomniac who has just graduated high school. Auden developed her insomnia due to her parents’ frequent arguments before they separated. Raised to be an adult at a young age under her perfectionist parents’ influence, she missed out on numerous activities that most children experience, such as riding a bike.
At the summer’s start, Auden plans to prepare for her first year at the prestigious Defriese University. Then, she receives a present from her older brother Hollis, who has been trekking around Asia: a picture of him at the Taj Mahal in a frame with the label “The Best of Times.” She feels inspired by Hollis’s adventurous spirit, for she has never traveled and can’t think of a picture of her that would qualify as The Best of Times. Auden accepts her stepmother Heidi’s invitation to spend the summer with her, her father Robert, and her newborn half sister Thisbe.
The next morning, Auden says goodbye to her mother, Victoria, an acclaimed literature professor, and drives to her father’s oceanside home a few hours away. As she settles in, the usually glamorous Heidi is disheveled and overtired as she cares for her screaming baby. Auden’s father is usually deep in writing, rather than assisting Heidi, but he explains that his wife knows he must complete the novel he’s been working on for 10 years. Excited to bond with him after her parents’ divorce, Auden is disappointed that he spends most days writing in his study, moods shifting depending on his progress.
Lonely and bored, Auden attends a beach party. Boys on bikes fly past her as she walks to the beach, and a mysterious, attractive boy in a hoodie—her future love interest Eli—nearly bumps into her. At the party, she uncharacteristically hooks up with a handsome boy named Jake. They connect behind sand dunes, yet Auden returns home regretting that she slept with Jake, crying and thinking she’s a smart girl who acted stupidly.
Auden soon overhears multiple fights between Heidi and her father, mostly centered around caring for the baby. Her dad doesn’t alter his sleep or writing schedule to spend time with Thisbe, and these fights bring back unsettling memories of her parents’ disputes. When Robert implies that Heidi asked Auden to visit to be a babysitter, Heidi states she invited her so Robert could spend time with his daughters.
Heidi owns a boutique on the boardwalk. When Heidi’s employees—Maggie, Esther, and Leah—aren’t paid on time due to a billing error, Auden secretly stays up and fixes Heidi’s statements. Heidi is impressed and offers Auden a part-time job as her accountant. Through work, Auden bonds with Maggie, Esther, and Leah, who kindly ask her to hang out. Because she’s never been social or allowed to be a kid, Auden declines their invitations.
Auden and 20-year-old Eli keep meeting, and she learns that Jake is his younger brother, which fills her with more regret. One night, Auden and Eli converse at the local bike park. Auden is surprised that Maggie rides on the BMX course. Eli tells her there is nothing to be ashamed of if she can’t ride a bike, but Auden is adamant that she can, though she declines his offer to test the bike course.
Auden’s mother makes a surprise visit to Heidi’s boutique. She thinks her daughter is changing into an insubstantial girl rather than a serious academic. Auden goes to a party where she awkwardly only talks to Eli. After they leave, Maggie explains that they’re shocked Eli talks to her because he’s become so reclusive. Maggie says he used to be social and funny and had a professional BMX sponsorship. Then Abe, his lifelong best friend and fellow biker, died in a car accident. Eli was driving, and they were hit by a drunk driver.
Auden visits the bike shop where Eli works. He takes her to local spots, such as Clyde’s 24-hour bakery/coffee shop. Sharing a natural connection and insomnia, they spend each night together. When he learns that Auden has never bowled—or had a sleepover, gone to prom, or set off firecrackers—he makes a list of things she’s never experienced. Eli calls this Auden’s “quest.”
On one of their nocturnal outings, Eli bribes a bouncer to let Auden into a club for five minutes so they can dance. They dance to a slow song. He kisses her for the first time, and she feels more than she can explain.
Next, Eli takes her on his paper route. As with bowling, Auden isn’t skilled at throwing papers, so she’s frustrated. Eli advises that she doesn’t have to be great at everything on the first try. Her newspaper lands far from her father’s house, and when she moves the paper to the porch, she hears Heidi and Robert arguing loudly. Auden runs to the car and sobs. Eli comforts her, letting her vent about the fight and repressed emotions from her parents’ divorce. He assures her that fighting doesn’t mean the end. He drives to his apartment and bakes a dessert to cheer her up, then speaks about Abe’s death. They fall asleep in each other’s arms.
The next morning, Auden finds her father with a packed suitcase. Robert is going to stay at a hotel while he and Heidi work on their complicated relationship. Auden wants to tell him he’s making a mistake by abandoning Heidi and Thisbe, but she’s speechless.
Her old classmate and past prom date who stood her up, Jason, appears in town for a month-long conference. A fellow intellectual, Jason wants to reconnect. But Auden is distraught about her family issues. From Jason’s chat about college preparation, Auden feels behind on school and suddenly views Eli as a distraction. She tells Eli she has to get serious to be ready for college and that she can’t waste more time messing around. Eli wishes her luck and walks away.
After Auden breaks up with Eli, she concentrates on her studies. Though she misses him and her quest, she studies harder. She helps Heidi prepare for a Beach Bash end-of-summer party with a theme of prom. Auden finally agrees to meet with Jason, who asks her to be his date to the Beach Bash as a redo, and she accepts.
Auden also learns to ride a bike. As it turns out, she only tried it once as a kid. Skillful BMX biker Maggie teaches her each morning. After many crashes, she learns to ride on her own.
Auden next stands up to both her parents. She tells her father that he needs to stop making excuses and prove he loves Heidi and Thisbe by returning home. She’s tired of him giving up, and her father takes her advice to heart. Auden also denies her mother’s request for her to live in the solitary, studious dorms. She rejects the idea that she’s shallow and unserious because she likes dating, biking, and spending time with friends and Heidi.
On the Beach Bash morning, Jason apologizes that he needs to attend a last-minute academic event. Auden accepts his reasons, and she pursues Eli at the bike shop. She courageously asks Eli to be her date, but he rejects her. Crushed, Auden stays home and watches Thisbe so Heidi can attend the dance.
When her mother arrives that night, Auden is shocked. Her mother apologizes for expecting Auden to be like her and for any negative effects of the divorce. They find closure, and her mother babysits Thisbe so Auden can go to the dance. Auden bikes to the event. On her way, she sees Eli and jumps a curb, showing she learned how to ride. She tells him he was right, that she gave up on things she wasn’t good at immediately, including their relationship. He forgives her and shares that he won first place in a bike competition, but he made it back early for the Beach Bash.
A few months later, Auden and Maggie are roommates at college. Robert and Heidi are back together raising Thisbe. Her brother Hollis came back from Asia, has a full-time job, and proposed to a scientist named Laura. And Auden and her mother talk about more than academics. Auden and Eli are still in love, and they meet at her favorite diner for coffee, pie, and studying. The couple sits close together in a booth, Auden helping Eli with his quest to return to school.