Each member of Esther Solar’s family is consumed and obsessed by a fear and Esther believes it’s because of a family curse bestowed upon her grandfather and passed down through the family that eventually results in that family member’s death. Trying to outsmart the curse and the reaper, Esther makes a semi-definitive list of worst nightmares of things to avoid for the rest of her life, but then Jonah Smallwood comes back into her life and Esther, reluctantly, comes to realise, with Jonah’s help, that it’s time to face her fears.
Now I know that that might make the story sound a bit blasé but I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth! This is far more than a story about fear keeping the characters from living their lives. It is about family love, damaged humans, mental illness and the plethora of ways it can manifest in everyday life and how families can live and cope with it. The story mixes serious content with quirky content to give relief from the often dark subject matter – but this is never done in a disrespectful way.
The shining jewels in the crown of this story are the characters. They are all unique and each felt genuine and real in their speech, actions and behaviours. However, I felt like I couldn’t enjoy Jonah’s character as much as I wanted to and as much as I imagine others did.
“Esther changed into a costume of Wednesday Addams, and then they went, the three strangest teenagers in town: a ghost who couldn’t speak, a boy who hated the dark and a girl who dressed as someone else everywhere she went.”
Jonah was the cause of most of my inner conflict for the characters. Every time Jonah did something nice or genuinely good I had to force myself to remember that he is a pickpocket. Not just any pickpocket either, he steals sentimental things and pawns them, such as Esther’s deceased grandmother’s bracelet. He also wipes mobile phones clean of all their content and memories too. He is a conman, taking advantage of people’s feelings to steal their belongings. Sure, he eventually gets the bracelet and phone back but that’s not the point. I just couldn’t forgive him for his actions, regardless of his personal situations.
We as readers are constantly reminded that he is a thief – he never stopped his negative behaviour or learned from their repercussions – in fact he increases it. He goes from pickpocketing people to stealing expensive items such as GoPro’s and drones – but it’s ok, because he’s using them for a good reason! Yeah, no – that doesn’t fly with me. I just couldn’t reconcile his character in my head. Sometimes I feel like I had an easier time forgiving Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones for his actions than Jonah Smallwood and his – and I’m not even sure if I’ve forgiven Jamie yet!
Eugene was by far the most haunting character and the most in-depth exploration of mental illness. I would absolutely love to go on and on about Eugene in my review but I think I would be doing a disservice to the experience of reading this book. The less said about him the better, as he’s really a character written to be experienced for the first time around, not described.
“That’s what’s wrong with love. Once you love someone, no matter who they are, you’ll always let them destroy you.”
I do have to admit that I connected a lot more with the secondary characters more than Esther and most of the main characters. Hephzibah was a prime example of this and I just wish we had gotten to experience Esther more, especially her relationships with the other characters.
Speaking of relationships, Esther and Jonah’s relationship just didn’t grip me – and I’m ignoring the fact that I don’t like Jonah on a personal level here. I just didn’t feel a connection or spark between them – to me there was just no chemistry. I feel like their relationship could have been stronger as a plutonic one.
But the rest of the personal relationships – both plutonic and romantic – were beautiful, sometimes moving or melancholy and always candid and sincere. They explored the intricacies of personal relationships and the strengths and weaknesses that bind them.
Mental health is a key theme in this book as most characters suffer from different mental health illnesses. The descriptions of mental health illnesses were sensitive yet unyielding, raw and realistic. Severe mental illnesses are explored via various characters and the author writes in twists of magic to help keep this topic light enough to be an enjoyable read – as strange as that sounds….just trust me. The content (and at times, story) is very dark but enough light is shone to keep it hopeful yet deep.
“People only understood mental illness up to a certain point. Beyond that point, their patience waned.”
An example of this is the Grandfather and Death storyline. This was one of my favourite aspects of the novel and I would love to read a short story or even a full novel that centres solely on this subplot! Every time we got a chapter explaining or delving into the Grandfather’s meet-ups with Death I felt like a kid on Christmas morning! I loved the ‘is it, isn’t it?’ back and forth with realism and fantasy with Death and Jack Horowitz. I felt that this was a beautiful blend of fantasy and reality. The best part is that the fantasy element of this story is totally up for the reader to decide if it’s real or not!
“But – like every other story on the walls – this one had been changed, hybridized, made ridiculous. Death wore a flower crown of orange and purple blooms, and around his neck was strung a plaque that read: BALL SO HARD MUHFUCKAS WANNA FIND ME.”
Other than wishing we spent more time with some of the secondary characters, I’m really nit-picking to find something negative – but if I had to I’ll have to bring up the references (and shortly mention the ending). Occasionally there are pop culture references scattered throughout the chapters and unfortunately I don’t think they will age well and will be irrelevant in as little as a few years.
For a YA book this story asks some deeply profound questions and takes the reader to some disturbing places. However I wasn’t too fond of the ending, I have to admit it. I know that it couldn’t have been overtly dark as it wasn’t that kind of book, but the ending was too perfect. It just seemed too ‘happily-ever-after’ and it was the only unrealistic bit.
The writing is amazing and the humour is actually really well done – I found myself smiling and chuckling out loud a couple of times.
I have to admit that this is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’d highly recommend it.
“Was love enough? If a person could offer you nothing but broken promises and disappointment, was love enough to make up for that?”
I’ve also reviewed Krystal Sutherland’s debut novel – Our Chemical Hearts!
Would you like to read this amazing book? You can get it here!
[PLEASE NOTE]: All quotations were taken from an Advanced Reader Copy made of uncorrected proof. Quotations may be different in the final published version. I was given a digital copy of the ARC in return for an honest review. I was not paid or sponsored to write this review – all the opinions are honest and my own.