Long before I knew the phrase, trigger warning, I experienced it while watching the movie Fearless—a film from the 90’s that features Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez as two strangers who survive a plane crash, a crash that kills Perez’s toddler son. They become friends of a sort as they attempt to cope with the aftermath of the accident and there’s a scene about three quarters of the way through the movie (I think . . . I haven’t watched it since 1994) where they go Christmas shopping for the dead—buying presents that Perez’s son would have liked. This scene didn’t just make me tear up. It made me sob uncontrollably for a full 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how much I was still grieving the death of my dad, who had died of heart attack about 9 months before, until that scene tore a hole in my heart and everything came pouring out. Luckily, I was watching this movie at home on my VCR (yes, this was 1994) so the only witness to this was my then boyfriend, H. I still remember the look of surprise and then concern on his face.
The point of this story is that Jasmine Warga’s debut novel, My Heart and Other Black Holes, had a moment like this for me too—where I found myself . . . grieving. I won’t say where but the fact that it doesn’t happen at the end is just one of many reasons I think this novel is well worth reading. It’s not an easy story to digest. Teenager Aysel lives with her mom, stepdad, and stepsiblings in a smallish Kentucky town and she wants to die. She feels like an outcast in her town and a stranger in her family and though there are some legitimate reasons why she might be struggling with epic depression, that’s less the point than that she is. One day at her mindless telemarketing job, Aysel is browsing a website for those contemplating suicide (aptly named Smooth Passages) and she reads a post from a guy, FrozenRobot, who is looking for someone to join him in a suicide pact. He has three conditions—the person can’t have kids, they have to live an hour or less away from him, and they have to agree to do it on April 7th (which is less than a month away). Because FrozenRobot only lives a couple towns over from Aysel, she contacts him and they arrange to meet. Roman, AKA FrozenRobot, is a not what Aysel expects—an athlete, popular, but he struggles with demons just as dark as Aysel’s.
The story of Aysel and Roman, teenagers who want to die, is both bleak and optimistic and is definitely not for everyone. Yet, I think Warga is brave to tackle this topic and she does a good job of getting us inside Aysel’s head and heart. I keep thinking of EM Forrester’s call to “Only connect” and while sometimes that’s not enough, sometimes it is.
P.S. A big thanks to Annie whose excellent review of this novel caught my attention back in February and so when I saw My Heart and Other Black Holes on my local library’s e-shelf, I quickly downloaded it.