I’m not sure if I can categorize this book as dark academia, but the characters and the story remind me so much of what I enjoyed about “If We Were Villains” and “The Secret History,” it is impossible for me not to draw parallels between them. All three stories are linked by a sudden and violent death, and how those left behind cope with their secrets.
Paul is a seventeen-year-old who has recently graduated from high school. He lives with his mother and his two sisters and attends classes at one of the local universities. Paul has always been an outsider and, after the suicide of his father less than a year earlier, his family hopes that he can make a fresh start and finally form some connections outside of his immediate family and synagogue.
It was just like every other family gathering – filled with well-meaning, exhausting people, eager to pull Paul’s scars open and uniquely qualified to do so efficiently.
In a freshman philosophy class, a fellow student strikes up a conversation with the painfully introverted Paul, and soon they are spending every day together. Julian is from a wealthy family and is only attending this university to anger his parents. Parents who have planned out every step of his life, including law school and perhaps even a stint in politics. Paul and Julian bond over their shared distrust of authority, especially when it comes to acts of extreme and avoidable violence perpetrated by the American government. It is the early 1970s, and the death of Paul’s father, the ever-present shadow of the Holocaust, and continued bloodshed of the Vietnam War shape Paul’s world view.
Julian is a master manipulator. We never know if he truly understands what he is doing or if it is the only way he knows how to interact with people.
Julian could witness suffering and endure it, so long as it was under enough control that he could tease apart how it worked. Once he knew the shape of someone else’s pain, he could break off a piece of it—claim it as his own, keep it as a memento under glass—and know they would be grateful to him for taking it away.
Paul is no innocent either. It took me far too long to realize what an unreliable narrator Paul is. The level of drama, self-loathing, self-doubt, and utter dismissal of adults who try to connect and help Paul makes it painfully clear how much of a teenager he truly is. That is why it is difficult to discern between “actual psychopath reasoning” and “angsty, dramatic, traumatized teenage rationalizing.”
He had spent his entire life in a house whose doors had keyholes but no keys. It was a new sensation for him to have a secret, and he wasn’t ready to relinquish it.
All he could think about was throwing himself against a wall, over and over, until he’d smashed himself into shards so fine that the void inside him could finally slip free.
This book dragged quite a bit in the middle. However, if you can make it past the slow middle section, the final third of the book is gripping. Both of these characters are unlikeable but it is impossible to turn away. If any of this appeals to you, I highly recommend this book.