There are many things that piss me off about reading YA books: overly simplistic synopses that don’t highlight a text’s real strengths; the way bookstores and editors seem to think if there’s one good book about a thing we need ALL the books to be about that thing (we don’t, and this is not a problem that’s isolated to YA publishing, though it is particularly prevalent there); and, most of all, the fact that other people think it’s alright to look down on an entire genre of books as beneath them. Especially since some of the books are so profound you kind of want to just walk around telling everybody, “But no, she gets it: This author UNDERSTANDS.” Since I am a YA peddler from way back, I’ve faced all sorts of real life and on-line skeptics, and I’m constantly rolling my eyes at ‘mainstream’ literature and it’s snobbish insistence that young adult books aren’t “real” literature, and this book is a good example of why I keep reading, fighting for, and pushing YA at anybody who’s looking for something good to read.
Because author Sara Zarr may be writing about two teenagers who are facing more life changes than they know how to deal with, but she’s doing so in such a way that 35-year-old me can read it and say, “Yes: I still feel that way too, honey – I wish I could make it better for you.” She’s doing so without the happy cloud of nostalgia that other authors sometimes fog their books up with. She’s doing it with a brutality and a clarity that’s impressive.
This book asks important questions about adolescence, and trauma, and coping, and choices – ones that it doesn’t particularly answer, so much as highlight the need to recognize. This is my first book by Sara Zara, although she’s been recommended to me before, and I can understand why: her writing style is honest and compelling, even to the point of discomfort. (Says the overly empathetic reader who sometimes has to walk away from the book when it starts getting too real. I’m a ‘pause the TV-show because this is going to be awkward’ girl, and this book had me putting the bookmark in, wincing, and coming back later more than once.) I thought she was particular great at explaining what a character says, and what that character means, and why they don’t always match up.
“What he’s about to find out” one of the main characters, Jill thinks, “is that no one is safe with me when I’m this mad at myself.” and HOLY SHIT, if you don’t know someone like that, consider yourself lucky. If you aren’t afraid of becoming that person, consider yourself blessed. Jill talks a lot about seeing glimpses of her better self, about wanting to catch her and hold on and be b e t t e r than she is, but not knowing how, and how goddamn frustrating that is. If that’s not relate-able to you in some way, I’m not sure you’re a human living on this planet, in which case, should you really be reading this?
Jill MacSweeney recently lost her dad, somehow managed to push away her boyfriend and the majority of all of her friends, and now her mom’s got some ridiculous idea about adopting a baby from a teenager she met on the internet.
Jill misses her old self, but doesn’t know how to get her back, doesn’t even know if she was any different – she feels meaner now, less trusting, less trustworthy, but wonders if she was always like this and just never noticed. She misses her old life – when her dad dies, her friends support was nearly as overwhelming as her grief, and – in her numb and crushed state – she turned cold, told them to leave her alone, repeatedly, until they got the message, and did. Now she misses them, but has no idea how to go back. She and her boyfriend, Dylan, split up too, and got back together, and split up, and got back together. They’re together now, but none of their stuff got worked out, it’s all just sitting there, being ignored, like everything else Jill has even the slightest bit of emotions about.
Because, post-having-a-living-father Jill doesn’t DO feelings. Because it feels like, when big things happen, when you’re grieving or traumatized, it seems like if you open up even the tiniest bit, you might shatter, all the way, totally, Humpty-Dumpty, 100% permanently unfixable.
Mandy Kalinowski is the not-entirely-truthful, pregnant 18 yr-old whose baby Jill’s mother plans on adopting. Who moves halfway across the country to stay with Jill and her mother, and whose own mother had a whole lot of issues with men & bad advice that she seemed eager to pass on (“men are fragile: don’t contradict them;” “Better pretty than smart;” You’re going to wind up like “all the other cows shopping at the dented-can grocery store and getting your STDs treated at the free clinic”), as well as a boyfriend who didn’t keep his hands to himself.
Mandy was a girl who felt invisible (unless she was doing something wrong); who sometimes didn’t even know if she existed as a “real thing”; who often feels like life is a game of double dutch and it’s only her who can’t seem to figure out when to jump in without ruining the whole thing. A girl who asks herself, unironically, “What if there isn’t anyone to make you something? What are you then?” and makes you long to punch everyone who has ever interacted with her in her whole entire life. A girl who writes desperate letters to strangers she meets on the train.
A girl who met a boy and it felt like love, and she hoped it was, but then he was gone, and now there was this baby on the way.
In yet another example of how YA books resonate more than people who don’t read YA realize, I also found that all-encompassing sense of ‘every single decision I make is overwhelming and will impact the rest of my life and that’s paralyzing!” portrayed quite well here. That deep-in-your-stomach-dread of having to make a decision that can change everything about the rest of your life (that you think, when you’re a teenager, will go away eventually, but I have not found that to be true and I am SO far from being a teenager that I’m starting to think it Never Goes Away), you can just about feel it, with both Jill & Mandy, and how it colors their every day and every choice they DO make.
And Jill does do something stupid that you want to warn her not to do, and Mandy does do something stupid that you want to warn HER not to do, and basically, I spent the whole book wringing my hands and wishing that life doesn’t have to be so dramatic, particularly when you’re 18.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to read about it when you’re 35, or 55, or 15.