I love when covers match the book’s contents, don’t you? That gorgeous cover is basically what the book is about, complete with flying whales, late nights reading in a bookstore, and a lost-looking young adult trying to figure out life. It’s heart-wrenching and lovely and I cried way more times than I want to admit.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I would have been less surprised if the stone lion sitting outside the fancy restaurant across the street had opened its massive jaws and made the same offer, but I managed to mumble, “No, thank you.”
“Good,” Jenna said. “There are too many books and not enough time as it is.”
Amelia met her best friend Jenna the day her father left to start a new family. Her mom struggled to cope, so Amelia basically became folded in to Jenna’s family and they became as close as sisters. They bonded over their love of the Orman book series, where each girl picked one of the protagonists – sisters who are warring over who’s the rightful queen to Orman, a fairytale land somewhat like Narnia – to identify with. As their high school graduation present, they’re going to a con to meet the reclusive N. E. Endsley, the author of the Orman books. At the convention, they separate temporarily before the panel where he will be speaking. When Amelia returns, it’s to find out that the author’s cancelled his appearance. She’s devastated, and even more so when Jenna tells her that she spoke to him before he left. Amelia’s mad, but they partially reconcile before Jenna leaves for a trip to Ireland. And then, she dies in a car accident. Amelia’s left unmoored, until she receives a package from a bookstore she’s never heard of before: a mysterious special edition of the first Orman book. Convinced it’s some sort of sign from Jenna, Amelia hatches a plan to visit the bookstore. But what she finds there is even more unexpected.
“I’ve lived in books. I’ve eaten and breathed books for so long that I took it for granted. I assumed that, if they saved me once, they would always be there to pick me up, even if Jenna wasn’t.
But Jenna is gone, and the words stay on the page in their neat, orderly rows. The pages don’t rise up to meet me like old friends, and the characters are marionettes pulled by visible strings.”
I loved what we saw of Jenna, at both the beginning of the book and through Amelia’s recollections of her, and it was achingly clear how much of a loss this was for Amelia. Jenna was closer to a sister than a best friend, and Amelia was content to follow along with Jenna’s plans. Jenna always had a plan, and she even made a giant spreadsheet to figure out what college would be best for both of them to attend. But with Jenna gone, Amelia’s stuck – Jenna’s parents seem to expect that she’ll continue with the life Jenna planned out for them, but Amelia is less sure. The trip to mysterious bookstore is a chance for her to temporarily escape their expectations and try to figure out what she wants to do. As for the bookstore and the people there, it’s hard to talk too much about that without spoiling too much of the book. I loved Nolan and Alex’s friendship, I loved Wally and his insane enthusiasm, and I loved Val and her absolutely magical bookstore. They each felt like real people, by turns suspicious and then gradually accepting of Amelia’s presence.
“And, like that, the stories have come back to me. They are sitting in my throat, working their way into my bones, my blood, the tips of my hair. They are altered, like me. Parts I skimmed before now seem desperately important, and parts I thought were vital, less so.
I am different, but like the stories, I will hold up to more readings, even if those readings are drastically changed in my after.”
The writing is lyrical and at times whimsical, but it doesn’t shy away from the hard bits either. It’s an absolutely heart wrenching exploration of life-changing grief, about navigating your path as you go from the Before to the After, and reuniting your life around a missing piece. There’s a definite emphasis on good things coming from bad things: that this doesn’t make those things wrong, that how you honor those missing pieces can be different for each person. It’s also deeply passionate about how important stories are to people and how stories help us work through our own lives. I wish I’d had this book when I was a teen.
“There are a hundred thousand ways to tell a story,” he begins. “Medical students help people live longer and continue their own stories. Engineering majors tell a story of technology that goes back to cavemen with rocks and sticks. Marine biologists piece together shreds of plot until they know where whales sleep at night and where fish live in coral reefs. Everything is a story, not just writing. You need to find the story that means something to you, a story you like telling.”
As for cons, the worst I can say is that it’s a bit fantastical, in terms of some of the events and how quickly the romantic relationship progresses. But the perfection of the writing and the emotions on the page is hard to argue with, and I think any reader will be able to see themselves, at least a little, in Amelia’s love of books.
Overall, this is an easy 4.5 stars, and possibly one that I’ll bump up to 5 after a reread, because this is definitely a book I expect to reread.