Expected publication: October 4th 2016 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Format read: ARC via publisher
Things that worked:
From the moment that we're introduced to Jack and Libby, Niven makes it clear that these are two teens who are not having an easy go of it. Despite their external bravado - which is especially tough for Libby, as she is reintroduced into a public high school life - these are teens who have been hurt and are hurting, have developed fears, and need to figure out what they can do, to make it work.
As she alternates between Libby and Jack's voices, Niven paints a vivid, sincere picture of what it means to be a teenager and grow up at high school, which can often be an unrelenting environment. Libby and Jack both have very honest and candid fears - Libby's afraid of being judged for her past; Jack is hiding his inability to remember faces - but also have sincere hopes, including wanting both a normal life and a future.
And as Niven takes us through their journey, she is careful to remind readers time and time again, that no one is normal. It's not easy to accept this, but we all have issues and challenges, and it's a question of how we learn how to embrace those challenges, that help us learn to grown.
This book is as much about leaving behind the past as it is about two people falling in love, and the journey of both is lovely, funny and a joy to read.
Ok. I'm going to admit: I did a tiny bit of internal cringing, when it started looking like Jack and Libby were about to fall for each other. I was concerned that it would be a stereotype of Jack learning to see past appearances, or something along those lines.
But Niven does a beautiful, thorough job of showing just how (and why!) Jack begins to grow attracted to Libby. She's the one constant in his life who isn't afraid to call him on his bad behavior, and doesn't expect certain things from him. It's actually a little hard to put into words, but she manages to challenge him in a way that almost demands expectation and respect, beyond what he's used to giving. Libby is someone who is genuinely interested in Jack as a person, rather than the façade he's often expected to put up, especially in the face of not recognizing most of his friends.
Outside of the Libby/Jack relationship, Niven does a great job of showing both of their respective relationships with family and friends. I was actually a little jealous of Libby's friends while reading, because it's not often that you have high school kids (both fictional or real!) who aren't afraid of going against the status quo - even when the opportunity is presented, to (re)join the popular crowd, as it happens in Jack's case. Their relationships are a great reminder on what it means to have genuine friends verses toxic friends, and Niven deserves kudos for so thoroughly and earnestly sussing out the difference between the two.
On family relationships:
I think all of us can safely agree that being a teenager is tough at any normal time, and it's especially tough when you are a teen known for having to be removed from her house, or a teen who can't remember people's faces.
Niven is absolutely pitch-perfect as she shows how these two factors have influenced the familial ties in both Libby and Jack's life, from Libby's dad feeling overprotective as she first starts school (and even joyously laughing, when she punches someone), to Jack's parents grappling with a misunderstood anger, and their own mistakes. (More on that later.)
I often complain about parental units being absent in YA, but it's definitely not a problem in Niven's book. These are parents who are open to love, even when their teens go through some of the biggest challenges, and I only hope we see more of this in YA.
On deeper issues:
Without really giving spoilers away, I will say that Niven handles a multitude of issues, from:
* Having a good parent/child relationship
* To making genuine friends
* To accepting grief
* To self-appearance issues
in a way that felt honest, and genuine. I found myself nodding along with what both what Libby and Jack were thinking, and it's not often that happens.
It's pitch perfect.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
(With minor spoilers ahead)
The one thing that didn't work for me, was Jack's insistence at keeping his prosopagnosia a secret. While I can understand the initial inclination to do so - he's still a teen, and changing the status quo at any interval can be scary - it felt a bit more irresponsible, after an incident involving his brother and some other children.
Perhaps I'm too much of a worrywart, but it just felt like the incident was a wake-up call for Jack to both be honest, and seek support, and I felt it was a bit irresponsible for him to do otherwise. However, Niven does make it a point of nudging readers into understanding that Jack is still very much a stubborn teen with a lot of obstacles, and obviously needed things to play out his way.
So long story short: This was a circular way of saying it didn't work for me, but Niven did a great job of showing just why Jack developed the way that he did.
On Libby's weight:
I know that Libby's weight was a huge point of contention when the original synopsis of the book came out, and I felt that in my opinion, Niven handles Libby's character in a respectful, sincere way.
We learn the genesis of Libby's weight challenges, and how food became a way for her to cope with her mother's very sudden and shocking death. While Niven could have easily made her decision to lose weight/regain her health into a stereotypical journey, Niven's actually careful to remind readers that Libby's journey is a multi-faceted one.
Though Libby does make it a point to lose some of the weight, Niven stresses that it's for her health and for her own personal happiness. There's no pressure to be a certain weight; more of an emphasis on Libby developing healthy outlets that make her naturally healthier as a result. And when people do try to bully and shame her, Libby doesn't take the bait. Instead, she owns her body, and it's easy to see why Jack feels like he's able to see (and fall) for the genuine her.
I know I'm probably making this sound very stereotypical, but it's honestly not. Niven gets the genuine journey of learning how to love and own your self-worth, and it especially shines through in Libby's journey.
Both Libby and Jack have spent their lives being defined by events of their past, which have left marks that are permanent and life-altering. But through trial and error, they learn what it means to move beyond the past and to define themselves in the hear and the now.
Highly recommend, full stop.
About the author:
Jennifer Niven is the author of the New York Times and international bestseller All the Bright Places. She has also written four novels for adults—American Blonde, Becoming Clementine, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Velva Jean Learns to Drive—as well as three nonfiction books—The Ice Master, Ada Blackjack, and The Aqua Net Diaries, a memoir about her high school experiences. She grew up in Indiana and now lives with her fiancé and literary cats in Los Angeles. For more information, visit JenniferNiven.com, GermMagazine.com, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.