Trigger Warning: Death of an adolescent
First book club book review of 2020!
January’s genre is Young Adult and we voted to read History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera. The story follows a 17-year-old young man, Griffin, as he recounts falling in love and breaking up with his longtime best friend Theo in the past, and grieving the sudden tragic loss of him in the present. Each chapter is broken up between History and Today until leaving us in the present at the end. It’s a story that captures many hallmark moments of growth including first love, coming of age, coming out, first experience with loss and heartbreak, and how you pick up the pieces after your world is shattered.
This book was a bit of a somber start to our book club for the year but it was very good. The author does an excellent job of depicting obsessive compulsive order in its beginning stages as Griffin begins to recognize signs of his compulsions and the anxiety that arises if he does hear or see things in evens or stays on the left of people. Throughout their relationship, Theo finds ways to make Griffin’s symptoms “quirks” which is a reaction many people have when their loved ones show signs of mental illness to normalize it or make it ok. What I appreciate is that the author shows the danger of doing this, including delaying treatment and a fear of being “boring” or “less special” if the symptoms are managed.
The author also does a good job of dropping little bits of foreshadowing in the history parts which are resonant and poignant for the reader who knows what is coming. I felt myself cringing away from reading the inevitable heartbreak, and reading on because I wanted to see how it would play out. There were also more twists than I anticipated. I expected it to be a pretty straightforward tale of loss and grief but the author captures the unpredictable ways people can respond to grief and love and other overwhelming emotions. There was one character I expected to hate, they were kind of set up as The Other Person, and I found myself siding with the protagonist because I’d read how he fell in love and how the loss of his first love was impacting him. But the character turned out to be just as flawed, just as much in pain, and just as sympathetic as the protagonist.
I wasn’t sure where the novel would leave me emotionally. Part of that was due to the tone shifting throughout as you go from the rose tinted past to the bleak, mournful present. It would have been easy and maybe even cathartic for the author to give the reader an epilogue or have things move at a pace where the pain has healed and the protagonist is doing ok without a shadow of a doubt. He also could have really embraced the pain of the loss and left the novel in a very depressing way. In the end I felt a little bit frustrated by the uncertain tone, torn between whether he was happy and it would be ok or if he would always be haunted by this loss and the choices made by him and Theo. But that is where he is at, and we all want our grief to be washed away by a montage of healing and growing, but that’s not how life works. And maybe the best praise I can give this book is that it did feel real. I almost forgot they were fictional because they sound and act in ways that are very human.