***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: This is an easy read with a respectful treatment of mental illness and a refreshingly healthy family for the protagonist, but it's more of a thoughtful, positive introduction to--rather than a complex look at--obsessive compulsive disorder.
What happened. Samantha, who prefers "Sam," leads two lives. As Sam, she's a swimmer with a wholesome family who also happens to have the "obsessive-thoughts" form of obsessive compulsive disorder, which was diagnosed when she was ten. In school she's Samantha, and part of the popular clique of girls who call themselves the Crazy Eights. Being part of this Mean Girl group happened somewhat by chance for Sam, since their friendship began in kindergarten, when they all had a warmer, more genuine relationship. Now their friendship causes her anxiety, but she's afraid of the alternative of being alone and starting over. Thus, Samantha hides her OCD from her friends, only feeling comfortable in her skin when she's in the pool with her best "summer" friend, Cassidy.
Sam has a good relationship with her psychiatrist, Shrink-Sue, and takes medication both for her condition and to help her sleep at night--sleep is difficult because of her racing thoughts. Throughout the book, Sam is constantly thinking--her inability to be mentally restful is well done. It's probably the most organic part of her illness, in terms of how the author, Tamara Ireland Stone, writes.
At the start of the new year, Sam wants to break free of her old friends but doesn't know how. A hipster-ish girl named Caroline, whose locker is in the same bank of lockers with Sam's, introduces her to Poet's Corner, a secret club in a secret room beneath the school's theater, where kids gather to write poetry and read aloud to each other. In a nice visual, the poems are written on scraps of paper and glued to the wall after they're performed, creating a tactile sea of paper lining the room. In Poet's Corner, Sam meets AJ, a boy she bullied so mercilessly with her friends when they were younger that he was forced to move to another middle school. AJ doesn't trust her, but grudgingly allows her to stay in Poet's Corner for just one day. When Sam realizes who he is, and what she did to him, she enlists Caroline's help to write a poem that expresses her sorrow for what she had done to him.
Caroline, a good friend and constant source of support, is an odd duck. She doesn't speak when she introduces Sam to Poet's Corner, and she never reads her poems aloud, as the rest of the kids do. There's a reason for that, we discover later: Caroline Madsen is the name of a girl who committed suicide--the girl who started Poet's Corner. (I did wonder how the locker Caroline was supposedly using could have been empty. In my high school, every locker was full, and then some.) But there's nothings supernatural here: Sam has made her up; her subconscious remembered reading about Caroline on the Internet and seeing a photograph after Cassidy's family bought the Madsen's home. Caroline is, in some ways, Sam's alter ego, encouraging herself to move away from her toxic friendships toward healthier ones. When she realizes that she hallucinated Caroline, Sam has a breakdown that keeps her home from school, recovering. Hayley, the lowest Mean Girl on the Crazy-Eight totem pole, visits her, showing genuine friendship. Sam is able to distance herself from the Crazy Eights and move toward the poets without the repercussions that one of their other friends, Sarah, experienced after leaving the group.
The writing. Every Last Word has solid writing, and is an easy read. The pacing is good. However, it sometimes feels like the reader is earnestly told what Sam is feeling, rather than being allowed to sense it themselves. It's paradoxically easy for a first-person narrative to slip into this "telling" mode. For instance, no matter how emphatically Sam tell us her feelings--"I can't give up my girlfriends, I'm panicked about being alone"--it's not the same as the reader being able to see precisely what Sam would feel if she lost her friends. "Sarah left the group and was ostracized" is the reason Sam gives for not wanting to leave, but we never experience that ostracism (it happened in the past), so it's not palpable to us. Similarly, Caroline was supposed to be so important to Sam that her disappearance caused a period of mourning for Sam (despite the fact that their relationship never existed). But other than seeking Caroline out for writing help, I never got a sense of true closeness between them that would lead to such a strong declaration of loss.
OCD. The most natural, "show, don't tell," depiction of Sam's mental illness is how restless her mind is. The book is in first person, so we see that her brain is rarely quiet. She also has a moment when she can't stop researching AJ's old girlfriend, which was quite realistic, and felt exhausting to read. In other ways, her OCD rears up in debilitating ways only occasionally: her need to park her car with the odometer ending in a "3" sometimes felt like a placeholder for what could have been many, many obsessions like that. In the beginning of the story, she has her most serious attack, fighting thoughts of assaulting her friends and her sister with scissors. It hinted at a level of illness that we never saw again. But perhaps fittingly for YA, a consuming struggle for Sam seems to be more of a "I won't fit in; I don't want anyone to find out" conundrum. (In Ms. Stone's defense, Sam's illness is meant to be somewhat under control because she is taking medication and working regularly with her therapist.) Finally, hallucinating Caroline does not fit with a classic diagnosis of OCD, but I was prepared to accept Shrink-Sue's explanation that everyone's case is different, and we never know precisely how the brain works for each individual with the same mental illness.
The romance. It was nice to see a Hot YA boy who also had a flaw. AJ, a former stutterer, is shy as a result of his own chronic worry that his stutter will break through when he's nervous. Is it believable that he'd forgive Sam and fall in love with her, given that she was one of so many tormenters who wounded him and made him introverted? I'm not sure, but I went with it.
In sum: a nice, not-upsetting, not-dark book about mental illness. The resolution is complete, and happy, without the ambiguity or complexity that might happen in real life, but it's a nice introduction to OCD, delivered by a competent, thoughtful author.