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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The Rest of Us Just Live Here - Patrick Ness

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: I saw this described by a reader as "an unusual misfire by an otherwise excellent YA writer," and I think I have to agree.


Premise. The premise of the book seems awesome, at first: if we lived in a world that had superheroes saving us from paranormal and alien events, what would the lives of non-heroes be like? There were elements of this--done better--in the animated movie, The Incredibles. In that movie, we saw an ungrateful society become disgruntled with the collateral damage of epic battles between superheroes and bad guys, and we saw the end result: the marginalization of--even incarceration of and lawsuits against, if I remember correctly--the superheroes. We saw the superheroes back off, and try to lead ordinary lives, suppressing their abilities and "fitting in" with average people. Now those are interesting concepts. Tackling those issues from the "average person" point of view might have been quite interesting: "We're trying to live our lives here, and the superheroes are endangering us every time they 'save' us. How can we live normally in a world where we feel threatened and unsafe?" The parallels with war and habitat destruction and species extinction, etc (all things that children have to cope with even though they're not responsible) would have been excellent. 


What we actually got. But that's not the story Patrick Ness pursued here. What he wanted to look at was the supremely ordinary lives of ordinary teens, very much apart from whatever the "Indie kids" (the superheroes) are facing, and it turns out to be...well, a little dull. Why did Mr. Ness juxtapose the ordinary lives of the teens against the short paragraphs describing the Indie kids' supernatural battle, we find ourselves asking? Why, in the end, are the Indie kids there at all? I struggled to answer this question. Obviously he wanted to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary: superheroes have to stop the Immortals from taking over the world, while ordinary kids have to confront their obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, dysfunctional parents, schoolwork, and relationship complexities. Surely those are heroic struggles? I think they are, but only if those ordinary struggles are written compellingly, which is perhaps where the book fell flat for me.


What's the point of including the Indie kids? The juxtaposition of the Indie kids' heroic struggles at the beginning of each chapter might have seemed more complementary to Mike's story if as I mentioned above, they were a metaphor for world events, or if instead there were a subtle correspondence between what the Indie kids are going through and what the ordinary kids are struggling with. There's a hint of teen crossover, for instance, as Satchel first falls in love with the Prince, then is betrayed by him, kisses Dylan and is betrayed by him, and then realizes Second Indie Kid Finn is the one who has been loyal all along. But since these paragraphs are written sarcastically, almost cartoonish, it's impossible to draw a serious parallel. 


Some people have called this Patrick Ness's "John Green" book. I suppose it has a similar affect, a sort of teenage self-absorption, especially if you're thinking of one of the more "day in the life" Green books: An Abundance of Katherines, or maybe Paper Towns, both of which had a male narrator almost neurotically focused on himself and his friends. But many of the more engaging young-adult novels out there have some out-of-the-ordinary, overarching external plot, in addition to an exploration of teenage concerns. For instance, The Accident Season covers many of the same issues about mental health, obsession, lifelong friendship, and couples pairing, but it's told over the course of a nearly mystical month when Cara's family annually experiences injuries and deaths. The magical realism of the accident season is so interesting, the metaphor of it is so pertinent to the story, the threat of being hurt so present, it gives the novel teeth. In contrast, while the real story in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is in fact about Mike and Mel getting a grip on their anxiety disorder, and Henna learning to stand up to her parents, there's no avoiding that the characters' stated goal is to "get through high school, wait for my college life to start, enjoy my friends, and graduate before the school is blown up," which in the end is sort of what we get. I found myself wanting something deeper to happen, and assumed the "something special" would occur at the intersection of the Indie kids' lives and the ordinary kids' lives. In fact, that's what kept me reading. When Mike and Henna hit the deer on the road during the mysterious stampede (caused by an alien blue light), and when they had the encounter with the police with glowing-blue eyes, there seemed to be a hint that there might be more supernatural events to come. But no, nope. We were promised early on that the two worlds (our ordinary one and the Indie one) rarely cross--that the two types of kids don't really pay much attention to each other, and the "normal" population, especially the adult population, lives in a sort of denial about the supernatural occurrences (a denial that's never explained, psychologically or emotionally)--and by golly, Mr. Ness keeps that promise. The result was disappointment on my part when I realized, Oh yeah, this book really is about ordinary kids. 


Synopsis. The book is told in the voice of Michael (Mike, Mikey) Mitchell. He has a problem with obsessive compulsive disorder, and it's getting worse. He gets caught in loops where he counts things, or washes himself until his skin cracks and bleeds. He adores his older sister, Mel, who has anorexia and who technically died for three minutes once when her heart stopped. Their younger sister is Meredith: brainy and funny, and beloved. Their parents are verging on dysfunctional, so the kids stick together. Mike's best friend is Jared, who is one-quarter god, is gay, and has a supernatural connection with cats. Mel's best friend is Henna, half Scandinavian and half black. (Haitian? I can't recall.) Henna's parents are religious, and are planning a missionary trip to a war-torn region of Africa when school ends, and Henna doesn't want to go. Mike thinks he might be in love with Henna, but he also had sex with Jared when they were younger, and loves Jared like his "chosen family." Indie kids are beginning to get killed, which has happened in past generations, always leading up to a supernatural showdown that everyone dreads. The recent deaths of the Indie kids are ruled accidents or suicides. Mike attributes this to adults being in denial, but Mr. Ness also makes sure we see that the police are taken over by the Immortals, which could explain why the truth is so obviously being ignored. Satchel is the Indie-kid heroine of the supernatural story, which takes place in the periphery of the "real" world. Mostly we see Mike wanting to kiss Henna, Mike being jealous of new boy Nathan for making friends with Henna, Mike's OCD escalating, Mike's mom entering a race to fill a vacant seat in congress, Mike getting help from a psychiatrist, Mike's dad getting drunk and being useless to the family. Eventually, Mike and Henna not only kiss, but sleep together in the interest of exploring whether they might be in love (they're not), Mike's mom becomes more understanding and less a driven politician, Mike's dad promises to go into rehab, Jared accepts his role as a god (but bargains to delay his "ascent to his realm" until after he's done college), Henna tells her parents she won't go on their mission to Africa, Jared and Nathan start a relationship, and everyone graduates right before the school actually does blow up in the final showdown of the Indie kids vs. the Immortals--a showdown that of course isn't shown.


What's good. The loyalty and devotion of the Mitchell kids to each other is wonderful. The youngest Mitchell child, Meredith, was never treated like the annoying little sister, but cherished by her siblings and even her parents. The cast is somewhat diverse, although not as much as everyone claims, at least in terms of race: Henna is half black, and her ex-boyfriend (barely seen) is Asian. (Am I missing others?) There is diversity in terms of sexual orientation: Jared is gay and Mike seems to be bisexual. And there's a lot of good discussion about mental health, and living with it. I loved the way the teens were a close-knit group of friends, not initially broken up into couples (which I think is true to many contemporary high school experiences).


Call Me Steve. Sorry, this is a direct rip-off from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. (Thomas Wriothesley is nicknamed "Call Me Risley.") Obviously Mr. Ness didn't think any YA readers will have read a Man Booker Prize winner. (Wrong.)


Why wasn't the Hero Story more integrated with the plot? Is it plausible that modern kids wouldn't be intrigued at all by the worldly battles with aliens and paranormal creatures? That they wouldn't make friends with the Indie kids? Why, even in the end, when it's clear the Indie kids have saved mankind somehow, do the teens not thank them or ask questions? Is Mr. Ness perhaps making a sly commentary on the undeveloped pre-frontal cortexes of teens that makes them intensely "me" centered? If so, it's a very cynical book indeed. But the earnestness of Mr. Ness's writing, particularly of the togetherness of the group of friends at the end as they're about to go their separate ways to college, belies that there's any deep social commentary here. I think Mr. Ness really just didn't want to include the hero story as anything but a comic-book backdrop to the personal issues of Mike and his friends. And he wanted the alien attack to be so obtuse to the reader that we can't even tell if the Indie kids are saving the world or attracting the danger in the first place. There's mention of Henna losing her brother to the vampires in the past (it's implied that he has become a vampire), and Nathan's sibling, too, and many readers have used that information to infer that "average kids" willfully ignore Indie kids and their battles in order to stay safe. But is that realistic and believable, or just plain frustrating?


The chapter with Mike's psychiatrist was an info dump. I really appreciate mental health being dealt with in such a level way, as it is in this book. And I think it's so helpful when authors show teens how pervasive these health issues are, and show that cool characters have disorders, characters with close friends have them--everyone has them. What Mike's therapist says made me want to applaud: having a mental illness is no different from having a disease. Taking medication for mental illness is no different from taking insulin for diabetes. That said, we're privy to just one appointment, and in the interest of expediency everything had to happen in that one appointment. It was almost like Mr. Ness and his editor decided that, for the sake of children suffering OCD, we'd better throw in a chapter where we have a trusted adult address all the medical science and social implications in a super healthy way. I'm all for Mike getting help, I just thought it needed to be written into the narrative more fluidly, rather than in one Reader's Digest appointment. 


There were moments when I was annoyed on behalf of teenagers. Sometimes Mr. Ness writes like an adult trying to sound like a teen, and misses the mark.


1. There were several instances of breaking the fourth wall in this novel. But since it's written by an adult, some of the words directed to the reader didn't seem to come authentically from Mike, but sounded more like Mr. Ness using Mike to say, "This book is for you! It's about young people! I understand you!"


"You know what it's like [to be waiting to start your life], right? 


"What is is about adults forgetting and denying--don't they remember the first eighteen years of life?"


"Jared's dad is the nicest grown man I've ever met." [The emphasis on "grown" implies that most adults aren't really that nice.]


"I imagined [Henna and me] living together...[homes and travel]. I imagined personal things, too. Always respectfully. Well, you know what I mean--you do it, too."


"The sex was so hot I jerked off for several days to the memory. Shut up, you would, too."


2. There was a slip where Mike said he was serving yet more cheesy toast to the "really, really fat family at table two." Ugh. Fat shaming.


3. Mike says that "Adults always tell you world events aren't your concern." I have no idea what this even means. As far as I can tell, kids nowadays are receiving constant messages about how they have to engage with, participate in, and change the world.


In sum. For me the inclusion of the supernatural elements wasn't especially helpful to this novel. Yet without the superhero backdrop, I'm not sure the author had enough of a story to tell. Instead, the superhero story should have become a metaphor for the wider world that teens can't control, or should have drawn more parallels between extraordinary Indie-kid problems and ordinary average-teen problems. I got the strong feeling that Mr. Ness might have seen the problem mid-way through: that his metaphor wasn't connecting, that he could be saying more with the superheroes. But he plowed through to the end without fixing it or adding depth. He could have made this book great, but perhaps he didn't have the energy or will or affection for it (or the time) by the end. And anyway, there's roughly a John-Green amount of teen issues explored, and the superhero "hook" combined with a great cover and some good buzz were more than enough to satisfy most of the people, most of the time.