I don’t think I’ve ever positively reviewed a book I haven’t finished, but this here’s going to be the first. Because I’m the kind of person who can’t rewatch the Scott’s Tots episode of The Office, and who cringes just thinking about that one scene in On His Way to the Wedding (by Julia Quinn: Spoiler for a Bridgerton book ahead) when Gregory professes his love in front of all of London, and … it does not go well. I just sometimes get to a point where reading/watching is going to hurt too much, and I gotta stop. But I also want people to know about this story.
Because this book is VERY GOOD. But it’s also A LOT. And I have been attempting to finish it for the past… month? And NetGalley tells me it’s out now, and I should let you all know that it’s out now, because you should read it, but I kept getting stuck on the whole “you haven’t finished it yet” part, and …. procrastination cycle is complete & infinite!
When I tell you this book is
- beautifully moving
- timely & relevant
- super compelling
I am not exaggerating. It’s fast-paced, the writing hasn’t been clunky at all, and it’s not (so far) heavy-handed about a subject it’s REALLY EASY to get heavy-handed about. The father & son author duo know how to write an engaging and deep book, without making it seem like that’s the kind of book they’re writing.
The problem of not-finishing this book is not a book problem, here, it’s a me problem.
Cause this book is about substance abuse, which: I admit should have read the description on NetGalley more closely before requesting this, but Neal Shusterman’s name was a big pull for me, and I’m going to blame that for me not seeing the little hidden clue that this was going to be about drug abuse in the very compelling, but obvious-once-you’re-looking-for-it cover art.
Before the book even starts, the authors warn “For those struggling with addiction, or with an addicted love one, this book will be cathartic, but also very intense.” That is a warning I should’ve heeded better, I suppose, but I’m not upset that I’ve read this far: I think this is a valuable, poignant book. I just know I’m not going to finish it with any sort of timeliness.
So substance abuse is a real thing, and it’s obviously in the pop-culture ether as well, right now, as all of the stuff about Oxycontin & the Sackler family & the complete bullshit that was getting a lot of people addicted to a medication they didn’t necessarily need or understand the risks of, is getting discussed a lot. As it should be. But.
But see, this book is just too much for me, right now. I am a chronic pain patient who uses all sorts of meds (including opiates) to manage her pain levels. But I also come from a family with a wide and long history of substance abuse, and I’ve lost family members to same. I actively monitor my pain management to a level my past pain management doctors have called “extreme paranoia”, but that’s how I survive.
You see, I know how it happens.
I’ve personally witnessed how simple & scary it can be to get hooked on a substance, and with my genes, and family history, I’m not playing around in that playground, I’m taking it seriously from day 1. It took more than a decade for me to find a pain doctor who understood what I was worried about, and even longer for me to feel like we had a good enough plan to actually risk taking addictive meds. I lived in a lot of pain, for a long time, out of fear. Reasonable fear, in my estimation, but still: This is a double-sided sword I am all too familiar with.
So to read a book that personifies these substances, gives them power and presence and intent? Is just, more than I can handle right at this minute.
Still, let me explain the basics, so you can really understand how different – in a good way – this book is.
So in Roxy, the substances – all varieties of drugs & alcohol – are all personified. They’re individuals, with a whole (really scary) subculture, & “classes”, & wants/needs/goals: They see themselves as Gods, basically. They’re out there having fun & making conquests out of people. And when I say they’ have ‘classes’, it’s really just a societal power structure, with the most addictive & damaging drugs on the highest rung, and all their less lethal, but adequately addictive, drug siblings in their downline, like a combination of the world’s worst MML, pyramid scheme, & a really twisted Mount Olympus, all rolled up in one – pretty frightening, but not inaccurate – package.
The club is high above everything giving it a spectacular view of the world below – all those city lights. Any cit – every city – and here, those lights are always twinkiling, because it’s always night. The date might change, but the scene is the same. The bar never closes. The DJ never stops spinning one song into another. This place exists at that golden moment when the bass drops.
Roxy is literally Oxycontin; She’s on the highest rung of drugs, in that she can, if she chooses, be sufficiently addictive as to kill her users, but she also kind of just moved up to that level, and she’s still sometimes straddling the rung below that, where she just can really f’ people up, instead of straight out killing them. Also on that lower level is Addison, Mr. ‘Oh, you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD; let me teach you the ways of my people!” himself. Addison/Adderall is on that lower rung, but he’s sick of feeling like he’s 2nd class, sick of seeing his ‘brothers’ in his upline (cocaine, speed, meth) viewing him as lesser, swooping in to ‘steal’ his users so that he never gets to move up to the next level.
And so, Roxy & Addison make a not-so-friendly wager – in homage to the great mythology the authors are clearly emulating – to see which of a pair of siblings, these two drugs can fully impact faster. Which one of them can bring their ‘conquest’ to the VIP room of their particular underworld club most efficiently. Roxy makes it to the VIP Lounge all the time, but she doubts that Addison has what it takes to make it all the way to the end, and he can’t seem to resist the challenge, once issued.
You’ve got the chapters that are told from the substances’ points of view, and wow: are they a little triggering, since their whole outlook is to get their user to need them, in order to survive, above all else. To crave them, and to be comforted by them, and to just. keep. using. them. no matter what else is happening in the users’ lives. To become their sole thought, their only want, their ultimate need.
And then you have the human characters’ chapters, where we meet these two siblings, both teenagers, both dealing with a whole lot of shit, and trying to figure out their complicated lives, and both having pragmatic & practical reasons to – at least initially – begin a relationship with Roxy or Addison. They’re kids with issues, sure, but they’re also siblings who love each other & their parents, and their grandmother who lives with them. They’ve got friends, and lives, and … in the background, at least at first, these drugs.
And … as you can imagine, those chapters are also very intense.
For people whose families have faced addiction issues, particularly.
They see themselves as gods, but in the end, they are just like me. Nothing but chemicals. In complex combinations, perhaps, but still no more than tinctures, distillations, and petty pharma. Chemicals designed by nature, or by man, to tweak your chemicals.
If they live, it is only because you gave them life. As well as the license to end yours. And if they act in roles beyond their purpose, it is only because you placed them upon the stage to perform.
And that is why I am stuck at 44%, because I can seeeeeee these two trainwrecks barreling down the tracks to disaster-ville, and I can’t stop it. Nothing I do, as I turn these pages on these really well written teenagers, who genuinely love each other, and who have legitimate issues that require these medications, is going to protect them from what’s coming. Because I’m simultaneously reading their stories from the substances’ POV, and witnessing all their coaxing and calming and ‘reasoning’ and cajoling, and I know their ultimate goal is to claim these kids. To get them to a point of no-return. And I had to stop reading before somebody wound up there.
I don’t know how to keep reading this – very good! and too real! and wow that’s triggering! – book, but I still want you all to know that it’s out there, and that it’s startlingly realistic & original, and if you can handle all these situations without having to take a break**, then I highly (oh god that’s not meant as a pun, I promise) recommend this book.
*Title quote from here, a Mental Floss article written by Arika Okrent, that I find myself quoting all too often.
**Thanks to #NetGalley for my copy of Roxy, which I promise to eventually finish.