I don’t usually read a ton of contemporary realistic fiction, but participating in my workplace’s Mock Printz committee makes it hard to avoid. I like that committees such as this one force me to pick up books I otherwise never would have – it makes me a more well-rounded reader and, as a result, a more well-rounded person. Both of my most recent contemporary reads have focused on grief.
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Petula de Wilde’s baby sister died in an accident two years ago, and Petula blames herself (and feels everyone else does, too). Since then, Petula has been preoccupied with avoiding random accidents, rare diseases, and other events that can end a life early, to the point where it impacts her ability to live her life fully. She’s placed in a Youth Art Therapy (YART) class at her school with other troubled teens who are working through their own problems. While she’s initially resistant, her walls start to crumble when she befriends Jacob, a boy with a prosthetic arm who is the only survivor of a drunk driving accident.
Lest this description mislead you, this is not really a story about how a cute boy helps a girl learn to live again. Jacob has his own hangups, and Nielsen fleshes out a number of subplots involving other students in YART, Petula’s parents, and her former best friend. The result is a complex portrait of a grieving girl who grows – but is still perhaps not yet fully healed – by the end of the book. At times it has a bit of an after school special feel, and Nielsen’s writing is less sophisticated than a lot of other YA. Still, her straightforward style ably tells the story, and she’s able to mine significant humor – without mockery – from Petula’s and her classmates’ problems and their various methods of dealing with them (some quite healthy by the end). Readers will be happy to see Petula blame herself less – and live more – by the time they turn the last page.
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin fled her home in California for college in New York after an unnamed tragedy, and now that it’s the winter break, her (former?) best friend Mabel is coming for a brief visit. Marin hasn’t returned any of Mabel’s texts, and she’s chosen to stay at her dorm over the break, even though everyone else has left and the winter promises to be fierce. Over the course of the story, what exactly precipitated Marin’s departure unfolds in flashbacks.
Wow, can Nina LaCour write. It’s almost painful to read this book because Marin’s loneliness is so palpable. LaCour’s depiction of Marin is intimate and impossibly sad, showing readers a hurt, betrayed, and grief-stricken girl living in (chosen) isolation, wanting to let Mabel back in, but not knowing how. While LaCour does eventually reveal what has caused Marin’s grief, there aren’t really easy answers to how Marin can come back from it, nor why things happened the way they did in the first place. I can’t say I enjoyed reading this novel, but there’s no doubt LaCour’s mastery of her craft is on full display here. This one is for readers who love introspective YA.