The Survival Kit by Donna Freitas

Shortly after Rose’s mom dies of cancer — a battle she fought for quite a while — Rose discovers in her mom’s closet a brown paper bag labeled “Rose’s Survival Kit.” The bag contains a number of items that she knows have some significant meaning to her. These are items her mom lovingly put together for Rose specifically, but even though Rose knows they’re meant to be comforting, she can’t bring herself to delve into them yet.

For two years, Rose and Chris have been in a steady and strong relationship. But once Rose’s mom dies, the relationship begins to falter. It’s not because of Rose’s loss. It’s just a matter of how these things go. And while Rose mourns the loss of this relationship — one that’s been a steady part of her life, especially while she dealt with the weakening of her mother — she’s found something in Will, her family’s hired yard work help, that has her intrigued. Will has been a constant in her life too, but one she’s been willing to overlook easily. She’s never thought about who Will is beyond the fact he works for her family. She’s missed that he goes to her school, that he has a wealth of interests, including hockey, and that he may understand her much more than she could ever imagine.

Donna Freitas knows how to write a story. She knows how to write characters. And she knows how to deliver whole heartedly on both. The Survival Kit tackles the issue of grief and growth, treading territory so many other contemporary titles in the last few years have done, but there’s something that sets this one just a little bit apart. Aside from a host of fully-fleshed and completely realistic characters who act and feel in ways that teens do, this story fully fleshes out the meaning of faith and belief without treading into spiritual or religious territory. It’s uplifting in a way that many books about grief aren’t.

Rose might be one of my favorite characters in a long time. She’s experienced a tremendous loss in her life, and she allows herself the opportunity to mourn. But rather than give up the entirety of her life to do so, she gives up things. She continues to go to school and continues to socialize and be a part of her friendships, but she gives up listening to music. It depresses her too much. She and boyfriend Chris break up, but she doesn’t swear off the idea of establishing relationships with other characters. In fact, she wants to do so. She’s isolated herself from tangibles in exchange for the intangibles of human connections. It sounds so simple, but what makes this powerful in the context of the story is just how well Freitas rounds out these characters.

It could be easy to make Rose a character to feel sorry for. She’s lost a lot in her life. But as readers, we feel her pain step by step because we care so much for her well being. We want Rose to move forward because she has so much to work toward. The stakes are high, even without there necessarily being huge things ahead for her. She’s average, and there’s something about that averageness that is so important to her. She’s relatable and she’s likable. She doesn’t have to be a superstar or a prodigy for us to feel for her.

Part of what makes Rose so sympathetic, though, is the way she approaches everyone in the story. The way she builds them up in her mind makes her grief almost more aching; where it would be easy to make Chris to be a bad person in the midst of their breakup, instead, she continues to respect him and even love him a bit. What was between them is over, but it’s not. It’s a part of who she is and it’s part of what has shaped her life. When Rose begins to talk with Will and learn his story, she realizes, too, how much his story is part of her story. She embraces him, even admitting to herself that she’s always overlooked what was right in front of her unfairly. She’s never looked down on him, but she’s never sensed the opportunity for connection with him. But the thing is, she makes that connection when she most needs to, and it serves her well in understanding her own grief. I must also give Freitas huge points, too, for not falling into the boy-that-saves-the-girl trope here. Rose figures everything out for herself. Her relationship with Will is merely an extension of understanding her own self and emotions. It’s not the catalyst. Admittedly, I found the romance to be a little convenient (how could it not be?), ultimately, that didn’t matter. Everything else in this story worked so well that the moments of convenience were easy to overlook.

The Survival Kit is pitch perfect in pace, and it mimics Rose’s processing of grief. What made this work was the survival kit Rose finds, addressed to her from her mother. The kit included a number of items, such as an iPod with pre-loaded music, a crystal heart, a box of crayons, and a paper kite, among other things. Each of these carries huge meaning, and as Rose works through the challenges in front of her, she understands the weight of the items. She realizes that the physical, tangibleness of things isn’t what matters — what matters is the meaning and the value within them. That is to say, of course, that while Rose’s mother is no longer a physical being, what her mother meant to her will never be gone. What her mother gave to her in meaning was beyond the tangible. Never once did this feel forced, either; Freitas is careful in implementing the items into the story so that it never becomes meaning upon symbolic meaning. It just is.

This story has really stuck with me since finishing it. There’s respect for the story and characters, matched only by the respect for the readers. Freitas’s writing is very reminiscent of Dana Reinhardt’s, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of my reading experience with The Things a Brother Knows when I finished. Though the topic is so heavy and challenging to read, the feeling of hope that emerges at the end — both for the characters and for the world outside the story — is commendable. This book is its own survival kit.

Hand this one off to those who love realistic fiction, ala Sarah Dessen, Siobhan Vivian, and Dana Reinhardt. While it will appeal to a wide range of readers, I think those who enjoy a bit of a challenge with their reading will find much to dig into here. Moreover, I cannot help but also note this book has one of my favorite covers in a long time. It perfectly captures the story, and it has wide appeal to it. There’s much crossover appeal on this book, as I think adults will find this as enjoyable as teens will. I could see this being a fantastic choice for a mother-daughter book discussion, and I don’t mean that in a way to belittle it. It has so much to it and begs its readers to talk and connect with one another.

Advanced reader’s copy received from the publisher. The Survival Kit is available now.

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