Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

Let’s jump right in, shall we? Here’s the cover description:

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more ‘normal’ than she ever has as part of the popular crowd…until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.

What drew me to this one was the poetry angle. I love reading poetry, I love writing poetry, I love reading about poetry. I didn’t really think about the OCD side of it much, kind of shrugging my shoulders and telling myself, “Well you liked that TV series ‘Monk.’ Maybe this will be like that." Spoiler: It’s not. The ‘Pure-O’ (as it’s called) OCD is VERY different from the stereotype of OCD I was familiar with and it kind of unsettled me, primarily because of how much I identified with it. I’m an overthinker. Pure-O is overthinking on steroids. It’s being obsessed, uncontrollably consumed by something. It’s ‘thought spirals,’ as Sam calls them, where one thoughts leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another – sometimes rationally, sometimes not, and always consuming and destructive. Thoughts that snowball and take hold to the point she has perpetual insomnia because her mind never stops thinking. At times, it did not make for a comfortable read. But it made for an interesting read.

Let me ask you something. “Raise your hand if you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George.” Over and over as Sam was spending time with her girl"friends", that was all I could think of – the 2004 film Mean Girls. It didn’t quite go as far as “On Wednesdays we wear pink,” but very nearly. Now, I like Mean Girls. It absolutely cracks me up. But the difference is that was a comedy. This is definitely not. And where Mean Girls makes me laugh, this had me really annoyed at times that Sam would put up with their cattiness and even cruelty. I’m sorry, but at a certain point self-respect and respect for others trumps comfort and demands that you change a situation.

Granted, Sam did finally snap out of it, but the popular cheerleader types grate on my nerves very badly, so it seemed to take awfully long. Do I wish it had happened sooner? Actually…no. It took forever, yes. But it also fit Sam’s character growth. Because she did actually grow. In so many Young Adult novels, that never happens. The main character changes, yes. But for the better? Not usually. But Sam did. She confronted her past, admitting that she had been wrong, that she had become someone she didn’t really want to be and that she needed to change. She changed, and she changed her life.

I also appreciated the male lead, AJ. He was different from most of the males I’ve read lately in YA. He actually wasn’t a mysterious, brooding emo! Imagine that! He was kind, forgiving in the face of great hurt, interested in people other than himself and his girlfriend. Actually, a really nice, decent guy. It was a really pleasant surprise and stood out refreshingly from some of the others I’ve read recently. Along with an unusual male lead, there was also an extremely unusual parental relationship. Sam actually (are you sitting down?) had a good relationship with her parents! Sarcasm aside, I loved the fact that for once a YA novel didn't have either the dopey-dad or the meanie-mom stereotypes. Her parents love her, take care of her, and she actually even likes them. This is unfortunately rare in YA these days, and earned this book major brownie points.

The poetry angle did not disappoint. The vividness with which Stone wrote about the characters writing was really neat (confusing, I know). And it did what I needed it to, which was to remind me how much I love writing/reading poetry and encourage me to get back to it again. It’s been too long. Thank you, Ms. Stone.

What really stood out to me though was the way the plot came full circle. Elements of the story reminded me very much of Made You Up, but where Made You Up was a fairly linear story that ended, Every Last Word comes completely full circle and shows with amazing clarity where it all began, even before Sam 'hit the scene'. It’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but let’s put it this way: I unfortunately found out a major spoiler ahead of time, and the ending still really impressed me, and even moved me. The writing style and plotting both showed the marks of a really excellent writer.

All that said, I have to add a caveat. It was an excellent YA novel. But it wasn’t terribly different from other YA stories like this that I’ve read. Better than most, yes. But still very typical. The populars versus the misfits, the smattering of language, the one requisite make out scene, the same high school I think I’ve read a dozen times. BUT if you enjoy these sub-genre of YA, this is definitely one to add to your list, because as I said it is quite good, and has a few things that were unique (the male lead, the full circle plot, etc.). It was quite the breath of fresh air and I know I enjoyed it very much.

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