Emily Beam’s boyfriend killed himself in their school library. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t his plan. He maybe didn’t have a plan and it was a panic reaction. Emily was there.
A funeral, followed by a trip to Boston to see her aunt, and Emily is then sent to a boarding school in Amherst. It’s the same school Emily Dickinson once attended, and immediately, Emily feels a connection to the poet, through her words and her spirit. She also connects, in a weird, disconnected kind of way, to her new roommate KT. She doesn’t tell KT why she’s new in the middle of the school year, and KT doesn’t press her. She listens, then she lies to the other girls in their hall about why Emily is as quiet, reserved, somewhat off-putting as she is. The lies don’t make Emily happy. At least they don’t when they happen (lies are hard to keep track of, as she says) but eventually, Emily appreciates the lies because they tell her something much deeper about KT.
And We Stay is Jenny Hubbard’s second YA novel. Like her first, it’s technically historical fiction, as this is set in 1995. It’s a setting that frustrated me the entire time I read the book and long after finishing. There was nothing in this book, save for a couple of easily changed pop cultural references, that necessitated the time period setting, and the only way readers are privy to that time setting period is because Emily dates the poems she writes and shares in the story. In every other way, this was as timeless as could be, and I think this was a huge disservice to an otherwise outstanding book.
So now that I got out what didn’t work in the novel, here’s what did: the writing. This is literary YA at its finest. It’s carefully and thoughtfully constructed, as Hubbard manages to weave Emily’s past right into her present. The story is told in third person, and as we learn more about Emily’s background and why she’s truly at this boarding school, we also see how she’s fitting into the present and making sense of her past at the same time. We get the pieces of the past alongside with her present, which is offered to us in her own poetry. That poetry, inspired by Dickinson but wholly Emily’s, comes between each chapter of narrative. The poems are reflections on what happened and they serve to make sense of Emily’s story not just for us as readers, but for Emily herself. But even on the paragraph-by-paragraph level, Hubbard succeeds in telling bits of the past right into the present moment. Emily, who is grieving significant loss, falls into moments of reflection and those moments come right in the present. There’s not info-dumping here. It’s elegant, careful, and it’s tight enough that it never overwhelms the story.
There’s more to this than Paul’s suicide, though. And yes, this will be spoiler territory up until the * in the review. Emily harbors a secret, and it’s one that she has to make the most sense of for herself: she was pregnant with Paul’s baby. This isn’t a secret baby though. Paul knew about it, and Emily shared the news with him the moment she found out (he, in fact, bought her the pregnancy test, which she took at a McDonald’s bathroom in a scene that was so stark and gutting to read that it is impossible not to completely get Emily in that moment). The two of them, being incredibly responsible, did talk about the what ifs. But ultimately, Emily made the choice that she would have an abortion, and it was a decision she made with the help of her parents. She delivered the news to Paul, and it wasn’t news he was happy to hear.
Paul wanted to propose marriage and have the baby. But Emily couldn’t do that — she notes it would have been unfair to her, and to Paul, and to the baby. There’s an incredible paragraph in the story before the big reveal where Emily notes that girls don’t get to have choices. That the holes in their lives are ones they have to learn to deal with. That in a situation where there’s a baby, a boy has two choices: propose marriage or leave. It’s not meant to belittle the emotional struggle of what a boy who gets a girl pregnant goes through, but rather, it’s meant to highlight that there’s a physical aspect for a girl in the situation. A literal piece of her body created and taken in some manner or other. So when Emily makes that pronouncement to Paul, the things between them get ugly. They can’t be a couple anymore, and with that breaking up — with that news — Paul panics and does what he does.
The trip to Boston after his funeral was the trip away from their small town, where Emily could safely have the abortion. The move to the boarding school, her way to make sense of what happened without the judging eyes of the town. Without feeling like a victim for making a choice for her own body and her own life. Without feeling responsible for what Paul did with his.
Emily’s time at the boarding school isn’t perfect. She’s not a perfect girl. She breaks rules, and she finds herself in trouble. She smokes, and she isn’t good with attending to all of the responsibilities expected of her. But that’s who she is. It’s part grief, and part of something bigger that makes her a whole and flawed person. Emily’s also incredible secretive about what happened to her, and even as she begins to understand her roommate KT better, she’s reluctant to be honest. Paul’s sister calls the dorm, and it’s hard enough for Emily to take the call, let alone then face her roommate afterward. It’s when Emily overhears KT defending Emily’s right to privacy and her own secrets, though, when Emily realizes KT is, perhaps, the best kind of friend she can ever ask for.
And that’s really where I think And We Stay shines. Many will find the relationship between Emily and Dickinson and Emily and her own writing to be powerful here, but I thought the way Hubbard developed an incredible, supportive, and caring friendship between KT and Emily was the knockout element. We don’t see a whole lot of it, nor should we. Emily’s protective of everything, and her grief often counteracts what’s going on in the world around her. But there’s no question that KT respects and honors, and when Emily finally opens up, KT doesn’t press her. She listens, she offers support, and she offers a bit of herself back to Emily in a way that’s not meant to say she’s had it worse but instead to say no one is perfect and that bad things happen and you can’t always make sense of those things.
There’s something really rewarding in reading a book where the girls aren’t all bad or nasty. They aren’t all perfect here — there are girls here who are snippy or thrive off gossip — but then there are girls here like KT who knows there’s much more to being a friend than that. It’s not just KT, though. There is an entire cast of well-rounded females in this story, all of whom have flaws and make mistakes, and many of whom become real mentors for Emily as she works through what she needs to work through. Of course, there’s the thread of Emily Dickinson, too, and the way that Dickinson’s contributions to not just literature but cultural history as a female weaves well into Emily’s own understanding of self. It’s by unraveling the complexities of being a girl that Emily understands that that is the entire nature of being a girl: it’s complex. That the holes in her life, be they physical or emotional or mental, are things she can patch up with her own strength and forward movement.
* And We Stay has no romance, aside from the reflection upon Emily’s relationship with Paul, and the story ends with girls empowering girls. It’s the kind of message that’s surprisingly rare in YA, and I think that’s what will resonate with readers who pick this up. This certainly could be labeled a feminist novel. The smart lines and messages about what it means to be a girl are hard to overlook — and they’re never preachy nor over the top. They’re skillfully discovered as Emily works through the events of the last couple months of her life.
Which is why I return again to my earlier criticism of the timeframe. There are a couple of very minor things that I could see a setting without a time stamp causing problems with, but they’re so minor, they could have been written around. In setting this book in 1995, I felt like what could have been an outstanding and powerful novel about the value of friendship, the challenges of grief, and the merit of feminist thinking and behaving was undercut. Nothing that happened between 1995 and today’s world has changed so significantly that this needed to be historical (and it’s historical — 1995 was almost 20 years ago, so even today’s 18 year olds weren’t yet born). It’s unfortunate that so much of the time I wanted to know why this choice in time because it really detracted from so much of the hugely positive aspects of the book. I suspect that other readers will wonder the same thing, and I think many will note, like I did, that the girl on the cover sure looks like a teen out of 2014, rather than one out of 1995 in terms of style.
Hubbard’s interweaving of Emily’s personal poetry between chapters works in the story, rather than detracts from it. I’ve read a number of books that have tried to incorporate the character’s own writing into the text and it’s a place I skip because it adds nothing (I think of things like Cath’s fan fiction in Fangirl). In And We Stay, I found myself eager to read Emily’s poetry. It was not only well-written and believable from the voice of a teen girl, but it added so much depth to what she’d been through. Her poetry also becomes a way that she lets KT in and it’s the way that KT really professes her friendship to Emily. She respects Emily’s talent and she gets it in a way no one else really can.
Pass And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard off to readers who like complex, literary novels, as well as those who love stories that may feature Emily Dickinson, young writers, or stories about grief and loss. Readers who liked Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things by Kathryn Burak will like this one, though there’s no mystery in Hubbard’s novel. Likewise, this is a book to hand to those who want a story about friendship, complex, compelling, and flawed female characters. It’s feminist and empowering, and it should offer loads of opportunities for readers to think about what it is to be a girl in the world today (even though it’s set in 1995 — which, yes, I am going to keep bringing up because I wish it weren’t). It’s a slower read, but it’s very rewarding. I can easily see this being the kind of book with great adult crossover appeal, too.
As for the title, it’s a line from a Dickinson poem that plays a huge part in Paul and Emily’s shared lives — and the life Emily has to work out in the after. It cements in the final pages of the story.
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard is available now. Review copy received from the publisher.