Warning! You might stumble upon a few spoilers.
Synopsis: In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.
Why does happiness have to be so hard?
This book is brilliant for a lot of different reasons.
For one, there’s the diversity offered by this novel. I have personally never read a YA novel set in the Bronx before, so just the setting itself got me really excited. The novel never strays from this side of New York City, and Adam Silvera manages to convincingly capture life in urban poverty, where Aaron’s mother works two jobs yet can barely afford the small flat the family live in, and things like a friend owning a desk or their own bed rouse Aaron’s feelings of desire. The group of friends that Aaron spends his time with is made up of people we might not consider even going near at first, such as criminals or school drop-outs, but whom, as the novel goes on, turn out to be more than just their social status.
The novel isn’t just about life in the Bronx, though. It also deals with the difficult subject of depression.
I am always weary when it comes to mental health in novels. There are too many ways in which it could go wrong (see the review for All The Brilliant Places and Thirteen Reasons Why, which I dislike too much to comment on). But this book does it well, and it is thanks to Aaron’s narration. Silvera has really managed to make his narrative voice very realistic. It’s through the progression of days that we get a clear sense of the difficult journey he’s going through, the suicide of his father and his l own failed attempt never leaving his mind for long. Despite this undertone of dark emotion, Aaron is quite the quirky guy. I really love the way he engages with those around him.
And it doesn’t stop with depression, the novel also tackles the process of coming out – it does this through the wider topic of self-acceptance.
I really love the relationship that Aaron and Genevieve have (their “Trade Dates” is a really interesting idea that should actually become a thing in relationships, I am telling you). She is his rock, and yet I love that she is not simply reduced to that. In fact, it’s the other way around; Aaron is the one who, I feel, identifies himself through the label of “Genevieve’s boyfriend”. And it’s something that I felt he does with everyone around him in the first part of the novel, before he starts questioning his feelings for Thomas. Funny Thomas should come up, because he is the boy onto whom Aaron projects his fears regarding himself. Aaron assumes Thomas is gay very early on, and then keeps quiet about it because he knows his friends would not approve if they found out, yet it becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses that he is fearing for himself, not for Thomas. Which is why Aaron can’t accept Thomas’s confession that he is straight and accuses him of denying his sexuality. The comic book Aaron was working on is another fascinating insight into Aaron’s journey of acknowledging his sexuality. Aaron says: “If I were faced with Sun Warden’s decision – whether or not to save his girlfriend or best friend from a dragon – I’m sorry to change my mind, but Thomas would fall away without me moving a muscle. And I would make that choice without a doubt because the bottom line is that Genevieve is my girlfriend and I’m her boyfriend, and Thomas and I are just friends and that’s that.” He is clearly fighting himself.
The plot twist that happens towards the end of the novel was anything but that for me.
There are so many moments scattered throughout the novel where things either don’t make sense, so you know something is up, or it’s easy to guess that something will happen. However, this isn’t what ruined the latter part of the book for me. The ending was something I did not see coming, and sadly, not in a good way. The positive message conveyed at the end contrasts with how sad it is, which you could say achieves the effect of making it more poignant, but I felt like the whole ending was just…wrong. Also, while the last few pages leave us with amazing quotes, such as “If there’s happiness tucked away in my tragedies, I’ll find it no matter what. If the blind can find joy in music, and the deaf can discover it with colours, I will do my best to always find the sun in the darkness because my life isn’t one sad ending – it’s a series of endless happy beginnings,” it also left me extremely confused about the overarching message of the novel.
There’s also the sci-fi side to the book.
The Leteo Institute, which allows people to erase memories. It can be seen as a metaphor for the dreaded conversion centres/ therapy, and the fact that it ultimately fails to make Aaron’s wish come true clearly adds to the comparison. The existence of the Institute really troubled me as I was reading the book, mainly because it seemed to promise an easy escape when life got too hard, and surely dealing with the bad stuff that life throws at you is ultimately what makes you grow as a person, so this was taking it all away (and where would that leave the emotional growth of the characters). Silvera seems to be aware of such worries the reader might have, since the latter part of the novel pretty much gives you the answer. The Leteo Institute, while actually being put to one side for most of the novel, plays a really big part in the ending, and as you know by now, that left me baffled. As a consequence, I am not too keen on this whole Leteo Institute side of the story.
I didn’t like this book when I first read it, I must confess.
I wanted to, so badly, and, to be honest, I think that might have been the problem. I have only heard good things about this book, and I ended up seeing only the negative, because in my mind I was sceptical about the hype surrounding this book. Therefore, things suddenly seemed stereotypical and clichéic and annoying. Everything you have read in this review until now is still completely honest, though. It took me a while to realise that I might have been judging the book too hard. Sure, I found it annoying that Aaron seemed to love his girlfriend mostly because she put up with him. Yet thinking about it, he had just gone through the traumatic experience of his father’s suicide. I think all of us would be grateful to have someone who stays, no matter how ugly the process of coping with the aftermath of such an event is. And yes, I found Aaron’s revelation that he is into guys quite the cliché, especially since Aaron didn’t seem to consider the fact that he might be bisexual, he just went ahead and called himself a “dude-liker” (I am aware that the ending might kind of explain why he unconsciously jumps directly to the “gay” label, but for me that still isn’t a good enough reason). Later I realised that it was something I could identify with, because I was myself only aware of homosexuality and heterosexuality in the beginning, before I realised there could be a “middle ground”, let alone a whole spectrum.
This book is quite a journey, for the characters themselves and for the reader (or so it was for me). Silvera deserves to be proud of this debut novel, he manages to tackle some incredibly complex issues with a lot of honesty and emotion. I am not 100% in love with this book, there are things like the ending which I just can’t get behind, but it is still a book I would recommend, especially if you’re looking for class diversity and sci-fi, all with a lovely sprinkle of LGBT.