Sometimes, you read a book and it hits all of the notes perfectly. Other times, you read a book and it misses them.
The Law of Loving Others falls more into the second category.
Emma is a high school junior at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. The story takes place during the twoish weeks of winter break, when she and boyfriend Daniel head back to their homes in the New York City suburbs and the city itself respectively. When Emma arrives home, she’s greeted by her mother who isn’t entirely the person she remembers her to be. Her mom’s making strange statements about her clothing not being the stuff she owns and that the world around her is out to get her.
Before long, Emma’s mother is sent to the hospital, then on to an assisted living medical facility for treatment of a bad bout with schizophrenia. It’s a disease she’s had her entire life, but it’s entered into a flare up unlike any Emma has seen before.
Throughout her mother’s time away, Emma finds herself questioning the strength of her relationship with Daniel. He’s not there in the way she thinks he should be. She wants him to always be waiting for her, to always be reassuring her that he loves her, that no matter what she needs, he’ll be there waiting. He does love her, and he is there for her, but as Emma comes to figure out, he’s not a mind reader and he can’t possibly offer more to Emma than he already is. It’s Emma who complicates things more when she begins to spend time with Philip, someone she knows through a friend and whose brother is also at the same facility her mother is at. It took no time for them to dive into a very physical relationship, borne from their shared desires to be close to someone in their grief and sadness.
While Emma navigates her romantic life, as well as the challenges of her family life, something else is scratching at the back of her mind, too: what if she finds herself experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia? Can someone love her if she, too, becomes mentally unwell? Her paranoia grows throughout, as she senses the anxiety in her own life becoming more and more problematic. Thinking about this makes her want to know more about the relationship between her own mother and father. How do they operate? How did they operate when her illness had been bad before she was born? This thinking is one of the things she can’t separate from her own relationship with Daniel.
Axelrod’s debut novel has a lot to enjoy. In many ways, it’s the romantic relationship in this book that’s most memorable and noteworthy. Emma’s desire to know how relationships work — as well as her own decisions in testing hers — are realistic and explored in a way that I haven’t seen in YA. There’s meat to how she wonders about her own parents and about the way relationships ebb and flow. Likewise, the manner in which Emma faces her own fears about her own mental status and the potential future of her own health are at times tough to read. With schizophrenia having an average age of diagnosis of 25, Emma knows she’s not out of the woods yet.
That said, many things in this book didn’t work.
This isn’t a YA novel for teen readers. While it’ll appeal to teen readers, it’s a YA novel for adult readers or, more realistically, it’s an adult novel with teen main characters. The writing feels so distant and removed, and the ways that the teens are rendered here are fantasies. The freedoms they have at boarding school — as told through reminiscent, dream-like flashbacks — are hard to believe. These teens read like college juniors attending a college, rather than high school juniors attending a high school. There are drug parties, a wildly deep college course catalog and opportunities for study, plenty of drinking, and almost too much freedom from any authority. While Emma has her parents present in the story, the setting at boarding school felt far too convenient. Not only was it convenient, but it permitted that dreamlike fantasy and more, it highlighted her privilege. Sure, her dad was a teacher at a great local school, but it was her parents who encouraged her to attend this school. Sure, it was so she wouldn’t have to potentially face her mother’s illness when it hit (though she did anyway). But ultimately, it was flimsy and cardboard and far more about developing a nice fantasy world for her to have when she had to face the tough realities of her home life and her relationship with Daniel.
There’s quite a bit of sex and discussion of sex in this book, and none of it feels authentic to the teen experience. Emma has had sex with three people, and while that’s believable, the fact none of her narrative experiences involve an ounce of awkwardness, messiness, or humor is hard to swallow. Both Daniel and Phil know how to get her off quickly and painlessly, and the sex becomes a balm to her. It’s weird because teen sex — even sex in adulthood — isn’t this easy or carefree or hygienic. More, the way that Emma narrates a sexual encounter with Daniel is well beyond her maturity or experience at 16 (maybe 17) years old.
From the onset, I could see the strings being pulled. Daniel’s mother was a doctor of mental health, and even at the beginning of the book, before we discover there’s a problem with Emma’s mother, she’s offering Emma an opportunity to talk. She presses Emma, too, asking if she’s feeling any anxiety, any worry, anything out of sorts herself. Then when Emma’s mother is sent to the group home for therapy, it’s Daniel’s mom that Emma turns to. It was too easy an out, and it was too conveniently placed. While there’s no denying that Emma had a big challenge in front of her and she grieved deeply, she had too many parachutes into which she could fall. There weren’t enough brick walls to force her to push farther or harder.
Emma herself isn’t particularly complex, nor is she particularly memorable. She’s not a “likable” nor an “unlikable” character. While she does dumb things and is certainly not winning girlfriend of the year (she cheats on Daniel!), none of the consequences of those actions feel that detrimental. There are outs all over the place for her, and she lets herself have them. She left me feeling nothing toward her, which might be her downfall as a character. She’s there and that’s about it. One thing that did stand out about her — and it stood out because it’s a rare thing to see in YA — is that she’s ethnically Jewish.
The Law of Loving Others reminded me a lot of Nina de Gramont’s The Gossip of the Starlings, even though thematically they don’t have a whole lot in common. Instead, Axelrod’s writing and execution felt very adult, rather than teen, and I can’t figure out why this book is being marketed for YA, rather than adult. This is a romanticized, dreamy take on the teen experience, rather than a grittier, messier, truer version. It feels sanitized. While I think it has appeal to readers looking for a realistic novel about a parent struggling with mental illness, as well as a story that looks at romance through the lens of what makes a relationship work or not work, there’s little that makes it stand out loudly and strongly from what else is out there. It’s more of a palate cleanser: it achieves its purpose, even if it’s not particularly fresh or noteworthy. This is a solid example of YA for adults that you could easily pass along to adult readers.
The Law of Loving Others is available now. Review copy received from the publisher.