Two Debut Reviews: Nobody but Us by Kristin Halbrook & The Whole Stupid Way We Are by N Griffin

These books don’t really have anything to do with one another, except that they’re both contemporary titles, both feature a male and female lead character, and both are written by debut authors. 

In Kristin Halbrook’s Nobody But Us, Will takes Zoe away from her home and on the road to Vegas. She’s escaping an abusive and destructive father and he’s escaping the stigma and history he has as a kid lost in the system. Together, they’re bound and determined to start a new life, a happier life, and a life of loving and caring for one another in only the way two people with such a broken past can.

Except, of course, that can’t happen. Both Zoe and Will can’t simply shed their past. It’s part of who they are, and it impacts their decisions and reactions to one another’s decisions. And this is where the story becomes strong: one character will continue to see the past as their defining present and the other will choose to not let their past define them and instead, use it as guidance to make the hardest choice they’ve had to make. 

This book reminded me so much of Heidi Ayarbe’s Wanted — the setting, the troubled and painful pasts of the characters, and the escape from home are all similar. Halbrook’s writing is gorgeous; the moments of tenderness are as searing and brutal as those moments of insecurity and vulnerability. Not to mention the moments that are panic-inducing for both the characters and the reader. Yes, both of these characters at times make terrible decisions, but their initial decision to run away sets up the story to showcase their poor choice-making skills. But these aren’t choices either Will nor Zoe make lightly. They’re honestly driven to make a better life for themselves and being they’re so young, they’re going to figure it out in very teenage ways. 

Both Zoe and Will are fully-fleshed and interesting characters. While both come from troubled backgrounds, it’s not an angst-ridden story. These characters are determined to grow and to change; however, only one really and truly is able to do so. That doesn’t mean the other doesn’t have a full arc, though. It’s just different. 
My one hold out in the book is a minor one: it almost felt like Zoe was too mature for being 15. Some of the passages and insights into life and appreciating the act of living are so fluid and powerful and I don’t know if they quite ring true to her voice. On the other hand, her experiences may indeed provide her with this wisdom at such a young age. Juxtaposing that with Will’s willingness to risk everything is where I find myself struggling a little bit — if she is this smart, did she choose to leave with Will simply out of desperation? I could buy that, but then I have a harder time with whether or not she is sincere and honest when she tells him how deep her love is for him. I want to believe her, but I’m not sure I can. For what it’s worth, this is teen talk of love and feelings, and those DO ring authentic. It’s just a matter of where I believe her emotionally/intellectually.

I don’t know if I see this as a great read alike to If I Stay, which is one of the titles it’s pitched like. This is a very character-driven novel, and while there is romance, it’s not in the same manner that Forman’s book portrays. I’d say it’s going to appeal to fans of Heidi Ayarbe and Kody Keplinger (particularly A Midsummer’s Nightmare). I also see fans of Nina LaCour digging this one, especially if they liked The Disenchantments and how the road trip line worked in that book. This is a solid and strong debut from Halbrook. 
Where Halbrook’s story is about running away with your true love, N. Griffin’s debut novel The Whole Stupid Way We Are takes entirely in one place: small town, snowy Maine. It’s a story of two best friends determined to make the best of themselves and their lives right in the place they are. 
Dinah and Skint’s story begins in detention — Dinah’s rescuing her best pal yet again, this time after he’s been sentenced for drawing pictures that someone found offensive. From there, Griffin’s debut novels follows as the duo attend a donkey show at the church (to which neither belongs, despite Dinah’s volunteering for one of their groups), their commitment to helping get food to the Rural Routes, and their never-ending desire to be the good in the world.

The book takes place in rural Maine in the winter. The bleak setting is a strong backdrop to the story itself, which at heart sounds like it’s uplifting. But that’s superficial (sort of like the idea of rural Maine in winter). Skint’s life is anything but happy. His father suffers from early onset dementia, and his mother is unable to be patient and understanding any longer. Dinah and her desire to be helpful, to be good in the world around her, is unable, though, to be there for Skint. Except, of course, she IS there for him and in the way he really needs. It’s just that the consequences of her actions completely shift his world in unimaginable ways.

Kirkus called this a highly stylized novel, and I think that’s the perfect description. It’s told through third person, and it shifts from focusing on Dinah to periodically focusing on Skint, and these shifts are not only jarring, but because the reader is so far removed from the characters, it’s hard to understand their emotional complexities. It comes through only in dialog. There’s little action to propel any of the story forward. In other words, the choice in story telling style impacts the way the story moves — this is a character-driven novel but because the characters are so removed from the reader, it is tough to feel the full impact of the story itself. I wanted more insight into what was going on in their minds, into what they were feeling when they were feeling it. I felt like the full impact of just how good Dinah wanted to be was lost because we don’t see her yearning or aching for that except through dialog (she talks about it a lot, but she doesn’t get the opportunity to ruminate on it for us internally). More than that, though, I wanted to know more about how pained Skint was following Dinah’s actions. We know what he does after she reacts. But we don’t ever get to truly know how he felt. 

The biggest strength is that Griffin is able to offer a true portrait of rural life and the ways that members of a community like the one here are all interconnected — and completely not connected — at the same time. At times, this reminded me a little bit of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park because of the dynamics between Dinah and Skiny and how both characters brought significant baggage to the relationship. That baggage, of course, helped solidify their relationship. But there’s not a romance here. It’s just a close and strong friendship between two characters. This is a fine read, but it’s probably not among the most memorable. 
Review copies received from the publisher. Nobody But Us is available now through HarperTeen and The Whole Stupid Way We Are is available now through Antheneum/Simon & Schuster.
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  1. says

    I was surprised by how much I liked Nobody But Us–it's one of the few recent alternating POV books that really felt like two distinct voices. I definitely think Nina La Cour is a good comparison, it's emotional without being dramatic.

    • says

      I liked both of the voices a lot and thought they were very distinct without relying on the "issues" to drive their distinctions, which I think can happen in alternating POV books a lot.

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