Ok, so . . . both these books kinda made me want to hurt myself. . . In a good way? A bit. A bit.
I mean, there are fun books that aren’t very well written, and then there are works of great literary merit that just aren’t all that fun. More Happy Than Not was most definitely one of the later persuasion. Poetic. Artistic. Insightful. Honest and . . . yes even poignant. I will use that word in this case. Poignant. I hate that word, and am using it anyway. But was it diverting? Uplifting? Did it give me hope? Oh, hells to the no!
Young man’s life is hard. He just lost his somewhat abusive father to suicide, and tried to take his own life soon after. His home life is brittle, and his friends are emotionally remote. He uses his girlfriend as a kind of life raft to keep himself afloat, piling the conditions for his happiness upon their relationship as only a teenager can do (unfair generalization, yeah). But this is part of what kept me reading it. Silvera’s characters aren’t cardboard cutouts. They’re fully developed and interesting. Conversation feels real, whether it’s the stilted mini-machismo boy-talk of main character Aaron and his friends, or the bipolar teen romance. It smacks of real. It made me remember that time of my life. How you could feel so gut wrenchingly in love/lust, and so insecure. So changeable without being shallow, or flaky. It’s just that things happen so quickly; feelings develop so fast. I thought, and I heard some teen readers comment as well, that the “twist” to the story was somewhat predictable, seeing as the one sci-fi-esque element of the story – the Leteo Institute and their memory suppression procedure – stood out as only a sore-thumb plot device can do. But Aaron’s slow grapple with his sexuality was honest, and relatable, and painful to watch. His arrival at the end of the book, damaged – his realizations, his acceptance . . . are beautiful, but bleak.
The world is bathed in tears for Pete’s sake. Ultimately, More Happy Than Not is beautifully written, and I’m glad I read it, but I never want to see it again. I will avert my eyes whene’er I pass it on the shelf, and will recommend it to readers with alacrity, but will make them go pull it from the stacks for themselves.
By the time I was a quarter way through the other book, A Step Towards Falling, I knew this one was gonna get my vote. So yeah, it still made me want to hurt myself a little bit (maybe I should stop saying that), but this particular flavor of heartache wasn’t as desolate. Emily, like Aaron from MHTN, has begun to define herself by her self-loathing. Hers is born from her inability to say or do anything to stop a girl with developmental disabilities from getting raped at a high school football game. She froze, and all of the idealistic notions of social responsibility and awareness that she had been championing through her extracurricular activities were trumped by one moment of apparent cowardice. Or, so she feels. But she is eventually able to take the guilt and shame, and do something constructive with it. This is an overly simplistic description of her journey, but there’s just not enough room here, right? What really should be said is that this wasn’t just a cop-out, quick and easy, “oh, they’re real people too” kinda story. The petty meanness that people can exhibit towards the developmentally challenged is certainly a character in the book, but the focus isn’t on moralizing here. The story follows Emily, and Belinda, the victim of the attack, and their “journeys of self-discovery” – ick, I can’t believe I just used that phrase, but it’s the quickest way to summarize . . . sigh sigh. They don’t linger overlong on differences between “regular” and “other”. It’s not all that important, really. Both Emily and Belinda are teenage girls dealing with teenage girl stuff. Belinda’s life perspective is different than Emily’s, of course, but it is matter-of-fact. There are no caricatures here, and this is refreshing. There aren’t a lot of titles that give a voice to teens with developmental disabilities, much less do it in such a compelling manner.
To conclude . . . Both books were beautiful in concept and execution, but my vote will ultimately be dictated by enjoyment factor. I don’t particularly enjoy standing on the precipice of despair, screaming “NOOOO” at the cover of a YA book, while crying into my Rice Krispies. The feeeels were of a healthier variety in A Step Towards Falling.
A Step Towards Falling gets the win.
WINNER: A STEP TOWARD FALLING BY CAMMIE MCGOVERN
Reviewed by Micah Rademacher, Blue Island Public Library