I’ve written a few reviews in the past in which I’ve sung the blues about books not quite living up to the hype people built around them. It’s the same old story: snippets from reviews on the cover claim it’s the next best thing since sliced bread or John Green, and we foolishly believe them. What claims to be transcendent and unmissable often turns out to be fairly uninspiring.
However, Nina LaCour‘s We Are Okay—a book we’ve mentioned earlier this year—is an exception. Rarely do novels—especially young adult novels—find the coveted, delicate balance that only the best writers can strike when they tap into themes of grief and betrayal. Books intended for readers in their formative years must have the perfect ingredients for a sustainable and universally relevant piece of fiction because, really, those are the only books from our youth that we remember and take with us into adulthood.
I’ve said this before in the past as well, but it’s worth repeating: reading a YA book—outside the realm of science fiction and the paranormal—as an adult can be tricky. All the formulas and tricks of the trade that appeal to the YA demographic can fail to move a wizened curmudgeon such as myself. There have been countless times where I’ve revisited books that meant the world to me in high school that has yet to settle under my skin the way they did then.
Of course, that isn’t always a testament to unsustainable writing/stories, but I have found that the best books don’t follow any type of mold or formula. And though a book might be labeled YA, it makes no conscious effort to speak to any particular group or person—it simply says what it has to say in its most perfect voice.
By any standards, We Are Okay is a rare work that redefines what young adult fiction can be, and it raises the bar for any novels in the future that deal with the pain of death and isolation the way LaCour’s book does.
The novel’s protagonist, Marin, has just finished her first semester of college in New York. She is the only person at the school who won’t be returning home for winter break because her grandfather (“Gramps”) has died under circumstances that are slowly revealed to the reader over the course of the novel.
Her best friend from San Francisco, Mabel, decides to visit her for three days, but neither of them knows how to act around the other, seeing as Marin has been ignoring Mabel for the past four months, effectively crushing the burgeoning romance that built between them during the summer before they started college. And herein lies the pressing matter: Can Mabel help Marin through her pain? Will Marin let her?
As the story slowly unravels, LaCour pulls no punches in rendering the dark seediness of grief and the uncertainty that comes along with not knowing the person you lost as well as you thought you did.
What struck me most, perhaps, was that LaCour’s characters come to the reader fully formed. Marin, Mabel, Gramps, Ana, Javier, and even Hannah are all people whom I can imagine getting to know in my day to day life. Each character morphs in some way over the course of the novel, but he or she has a core that seems chiseled out of marble.
LaCour has a knack for sparse, beautiful language that cuts to the root of the pain that plagues her characters. It comes to good use in her descriptions of the disparate landscapes of the novel—sun-kissed, colorful San Francisco with its undercurrent of danger and despair, and the clean, white-washed imagery of upstate New York where Marin and Mabel fall in and out of cold and warmth, moving back and forth between remembering their intimate summer together and the reality of never being able to feel the same way about each other again.
The image of Marin running away to this freezing place from her old life in California was the perfect way for LaCour to encapsulate the self-imposed isolation and the pools of dread and uncertainty that seep into her mind whenever she thinks about all the things she missed in her interactions with Gramps. When Marin questions whether or not the fabric of their relationship was real, the reader can’t help but remember the same instances of unrelenting haziness when a bond that once seemed effortless and forged in steel is actually as fragile and tenuous as a spider’s web.
Like anything else that lasts, this book is true, and often painful.
But beautiful to watch unfold.