And another book that I added to my TBR because it came up under “NDE”s but has nothing to do with NDEs. Not its fault. It ended up being Printz-award-winning YA, so I can learn from this reading experience while writing YA myself. I could also have just enjoyed it. But did I?
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (a lauded YA author) is about Marin, a girl who has left home after an unnamed tragedy with only her phone, wallet, and a picture—the only picture—of her deceased mother. She is four months into her new life as a college student at an upstate New York school, her only friend her roommate who is kind but kept emotionally outside and not knowing the reasons why Marin has almost no belongings and no contact with her former life. Marin has made special arrangements to stay on campus over Christmas break while everyone else is gone and her former best friend is going to come and see her—cold turkey—for three of those days. Thus, we have two California beach girls alone in a big, historic building during a northern, winter storm and they don’t even know what to say to each other. Meanwhile, we keep jumping back to the summer leading up to the mysterious tragedy, but in chronological order. Marin used to be happy and comfortable, a fixture in her neighborhood, friendly at school, hanging with her best friend and her best friend’s family, going home to her quirky grandpa. But what could happen in a few short months that would change that girl to one who would disappear without a trace or a word into a seedy motel 3000 miles away?
We Are Okay is short. At 234 pages with 1.5(ish)x line spacing and significant margins, it’s really a YA novella, more on par with middle grades in length. I’m not saying I couldn’t or wouldn’t enjoy a book that fell outside genre norms, but this book felt too short in that it didn’t develop characters, setting, or plot (mostly characters because this is YA) as deeply as I would expect and that felt unsatisfying to me. I mean, in the end, the story is told, the mysteries revealed, the big ending has happened, and I know two characters on a very small stage (which is accomplished with a pretty brilliant albeit dysthymic set up that would make a good play or one act movie). But I found myself wondering what things and people looked like (and sometimes was told things late in the book that were contrary to what I had formed in my head). I found myself wondering if someone who hadn’t been to these places and, most importantly, hadn’t lived the dorm life on a rural campus, would find it hard to picture and understand what was going on. And though I cried on cue, it was just a little thing. It didn’t really reach my heart, because I hadn’t spent much time in this and I was not invested.
On the other hand, I thought it was different. Interesting. It’s atmospheric, but with an atmosphere that is unique. There is some mystery, some romance, and, well, it’s supposed to be a study of grief from the YA perspective, which it is (even if it’s not super thorough). In the introduction by Nicola Yoon, she calls the writing beautiful and either spare or sparse. It is very straightforward writing with moments of beauty, but it is really spare. So, like, Ernest Hemingway does YA about an ultra-modern teenager (complete with cell phones and bisexualism). I can’t say I’ve seen much fiction coming from this extremely normal space of dorm life or even transition to college. And in fact, it inspired me to pull out some notes I have on a novel I’m meant to write someday that is eerily similar to this one in tone, setting, and even characters and themes. I already have the opening chapter written, and it looks so much like this one. (My novel, working title Mama Said, is actually postapocalyptic, but it starts in the same, suffocating dorm situation and We Are Okay sometimes feels postapocalyptic. For Marin, the main character, this is postapocalyptic in her personal life, or at least it feels that way to her, and LaCour has created a space that is eerie in its lack of human contact thanks to a winter break and a winter storm.)
On the other-other hand, as a much older lady than these characters, I got a little annoyed at times by the—let’s say—confidence of the main character and her bestie. She was so sure that she knew what the right choice was all the time, at least for her, and often I was like, “Nah. You don’t know jack squat, yet.” But I think that we understand by the end that she’s not right about everything or about a lot of things. Which redeems that part of it. One of the points, it turns out, is that we don’t always know what’s good for us, but we have to deal with the consequences of what we do decide. I wish that the mental health and mental illness aspects of this novel were much more fleshed out. I think I understood some things that could easily be missed because I’ve already lived some of these things. I wish LaCour had spelled them out, dug deeper, been more obvious with the themes. Perhaps she wanted kids to study this in literature, where things could be parsed out? Or teens these days just get things? Once again, I find myself facing a book that is relatable to the modern YA crowd because of their particular experience with the Pandemic. Like The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, it used metaphor to relate to the Pandemic teens instead of beating anyone over the head with literality. But surely this crowd can relate to loss, to sudden loss, to loneliness, to actual aloneness, and to growing up to what feels like a betrayal.
I think most YA peeps, especially girls, are going to enjoy this book as long as they don’t stick too close to upbeat stuff. This is a slow, lazy, close-to-home plot with many cultural allusions and real-people kind of characters. For once in my life I wish the writer had written more instead of cut more, but as it stands I would recommend it even though it was not life-shattering for me. I read it in two days with a normal sleep and work schedule.
Unrelated note: In an adorable, bookish moment, my husband and I both found the title of our books within the books’ narrative at the same moment. I was reading We Are Okay and he was reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Also, I love this cover.
“To think that a girl who is practically a stranger could be the next person I love. To think she might take Mabel’s place” (p225).
“It’s a dark place, not knowing. / It’s difficult to surrender to. / But I guess it’s where we live most of the time. I guess it’s where we all live, so maybe it doesn’t have to be so lonely” (p228).