It’s been over six months since Matt’s brother TJ died in Iraq. Now more than ever, Matt wants to make sense of what happened to his brother, but he hasn’t had the opportunity. With the return of his personal effects in the form of a few footlockers, he’s got the chance. The only thing standing between him and rifling through his brother’s things, though, his is father. Dad wants to do away with the things completely and move forward from TJ’s death. He doesn’t want Matt meddling with TJ’s things either. He wants Matt to pull himself together, get his grades up, and follow the path he’s meant to follow.
When Matt gets the chance to escape his father’s watchful eye, he goes through those footlockers and discovers that his brother was a lot more complicated than he ever knew. After finding a pile of letters from someone named Celia who lives half a country away, along with pictures of her and her daughter (with whom TJ has posed more than once), Matt’s convinced he needs to go find this girl. He’s going to get to the bottom of the millions of questions now popping up in his mind: did TJ have a girlfriend no one knew about? Did TJ have a child? Do those people know TJ isn’t alive any longer? Thanks to his friend Shauna, Matt gets the chance to have those questions answered — and have many more raised in the mean time.
Personal Effects tackles the topic of grief head on, and it does so while developing a believable male protagonist in Matt. Matt is aching; even though he and TJ were never close, Matt is incredibly proud of his brother. He wears that pride loudly, too. When one of his classmates openly defends his anti-war stance and wears a shirt bearing the names of those who had died in combat, Matt becomes very angry. To the point he swings his fist and earns himself punishment. Aside from being sensitive about what other people say, he’s also letting his grief impact his education. He’s getting terrible grades. The thing is, he doesn’t care. He has bigger worries, and where he ends up in the future isn’t one of them.
For the most part, I found Matt a good character. My problem with him, though, unraveled later on in the story. It’s impossible at this point not to spoil a big plot point, so if you don’t want it ruined for you, skip on down to the next paragraph. When Matt heads to Madison from his home in Pittsburgh, he’s expecting to meet Celia and expecting to learn that his brother may have had a child he told no one about. Except that’s not at all what Matt learns. Instead, he discovers that the “C” signing off in all of the letters he read was from Celia’s brother Curtis. Matt had been gay, and because he was in the military, he kept it completely secret. He didn’t feel safe telling anyone, due to don’t ask, don’t tell. More than that though, he didn’t feel safe revealing that to his family, either, especially given his father’s abusive streak. Where this pertains to Matt, though, is this: Matt is angry about this, maybe even a little bit repulsed his brother was homosexual. I don’t have a problem with him having his feelings — and frankly, I found them rendered believably — but I did have a problem with this being the problem Matt finds. He’d developed an entire fantasy involving his brother being married and having a child. Matt never has a problem with this. In fact, he seems almost excited by the idea. But the second Matt learns his bother was gay, that’s when he flips a switch. It was hard for me to believe he’d be excited by one thing and so disappointed in another, especially as it seems knowing his brother had an entire family in secret would somehow be more angering than him being gay. Each person decides their own views on these issues, of course, and Matt can believe what he wants. The thing is, I need to understand Matt’s thinking to believe it, and I never felt I got the opportunity to know him well enough for this to happen. He’d felt very protective of his brother, and in these moments, he felt cold and angry with him instead. The switch flip didn’t work for me, and I had a hard time through the rest of the novel buying Matt’s reactions to different events.
Through the story, Matt attempts to take his friendship with Shauna to more of a romantic relationship. While I believed his feelings, I found them to be a little bit boring. Shauna wasn’t interested in him, and it was obvious. He spent a long time offering us physical reactions to being in the same room with her and for the most part, I found this didn’t advance either character and it dragged the pacing. Shauna, for me, was a well-developed character and she was the kind of person Matt needed in his life. She was an advocate for him, even when his mind sometimes went elsewhere. She was, if you will, the exact opposite of what Matt’s father was: where dad wanted to continue holding Matt back and continue hurting him, Shauna offered him the tools to move forward, even if it meant getting herself in trouble.
My biggest holdup with the story — and this is a personal issue, not something most readers will struggle with — was that TJ was an automatic hero. Because he’s dead, we don’t ever get the chance to evaluate him for who he is. We’re instead in Matt’s shoes and we’re forced to judge him through Matt’s eyes. And Matt, despite some of his feelings and reactions while in Madison, sees his brother as a hero. I don’t ever doubt that TJ was brave and deserved the sort of respect he was given, but I have a hard time with books where a dead character is the central device in moving a plot forward and he’s got some sort of status that keeps him from being a full or flawed character. More than that, though, the fact his death came through war, which is such a heavy topic and one which readers bring their own experiences to the story with, furthered this. The responsibility of judging TJ comes on the reader, since it’s not there in the story. It’s tricky then to look at a character who doesn’t get the chance to tell his story or offer himself completely, knowing his life ended during the Iraq war, and make a judgment about him. It makes the reader feel either good or bad about themselves in that assessment. That said, the secret TJ harbored didn’t make him flawed. It made him more respectable in my mind. But I felt a little led into believing only that about him. I couldn’t get beyond what he had against him.
Despite the flaws, I really enjoyed Personal Effects — Matt’s story kept me engaged, and the writing itself worked with the story, rather than against it. While I felt myself emotionally distanced, I definitely see other readers finding this the kind of book they connect with on that level. This book has great guy appeal, but it certainly will work for female readers, too. I’ve talked before about Dana Reinhardt’s The Things a Brother Knows before, and I think for readers who may not be ready for that story, Kokie’s book will be a great starting point. That’s not to say it’s weaker, but it’s a bit of an easier read and a little easier to digest. The pacing is faster, too. As more teens deal with the reality of having a brother or sister in combat, these sorts of books take on greater importance and I am glad that they’re less about sending a message about war itself and more about the after effects and emotional, human issues around war. Aside from working well for teen readers, Kokie’s novel will have great adult appeal. This is a strong and believable portrayal of grief and loss without ever focusing on those as key elements of the story. Matt never sets out to tell us how he grieves. He just does it.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Personal Effects will be available September 11.