Book Note: And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard
Tuesday, October 07, 2014
A few days ago, I blogged about a YA book that didn’t quite fit for me because it felt too teen. Today I’m writing about one that swung maybe too far the other way—just this side of too intense that I’m not sure many teenage girls will pick it up.
Which is a shame because I loved it.
And We Stay, by Jenny Hubbard, tells the story of Emily Beam, whose ex-boyfriend Paul one day walked into the high school library with a gun, threatened Emily, and then shot himself. Emily is struggling with dealing with this, so her parents decide to send her to boarding school in Massachusetts. The same boarding school in Amherst that Emily Dickinson briefly attended. Although she’s never really been a writer, as she starts to figure out her new place, Emily Beam finds herself writing poems.
(In case you’re wondering: Yes! I do think it makes it confusing to have a character named Emily who is interested in a historical figure named Emily. It was the one thing that was just too much.)
There are other parts to Emily’s story, but you don’t find them out all at once. Obviously, though, she’s gone through a rough time. A really rough time. And, in one of those serendipitous book events (which I think are arranged by a forgotten Greek goddess, the goddess of reading and books whose name no one knows anymore), as I read it, Jake was going through rough times, with a girl. So I was thinking a lot about the nature of teenage love. In the book, one of Paul’s triggers is that he wants to stay together with Emily—maybe forever. Remember how that felt, the first time you loved someone, and you loved them in a way that felt impossible to ever stop? that you couldn’t ever imagine your life without?
I remember that.
And maybe because I was in the middle of consoling my own teenage son, I had nothing but empathy for Paul. He makes some incredibly bad choices, but he isn’t a bad character—just a confused one. Emily had a clearer picture of how the future would work out. She understood (maybe in a way only girls in novels can) that first love, no matter how intense and real and good, is generally not going to be forever. Paul couldn’t see it that way.
But this is Emily’s story, not Paul’s. Also, it’s a boarding school story. I have a theory that it is easier to set a YA novel in a boarding school because it eliminates parents. Emily’s were only shadows and memories that didn’t help her work out her problems. In a way, I think that is good. She came to her own realizations and so they were hers. But it’s also risky, and not something I’m certain I could do—send my daughter off after she’d experienced something so traumatic.
But Emily finds a way, and partly that way is through writing. Writing poems. The book isn’t only in poems, but each chapter ends with one. What I found remarkable is how authentically adolescent the poems are. Not juvenile, but clearly written by a teenager wrestling with issues. (Except, of course, they weren’t. Brilliant work, Jenny Hubbard!) The poems might scare away some readers, but they fit in nicely with the plot.
I’m not so certain I could recommend this book to just any reader. It has some fairly grown-up issues. But every so often, I’ll help a patron who is looking for books with a certain quality. It’s hard for them to pin down, but I think of them as Plath-esque: books to read when you just want to wallow around in sadness for awhile. I have a whole list of them, and And We Stay is on it now.
Do you like sad books? Or novels with poetry in them?