Book Review: Every Last Word, Tamara Ireland Stone (2015)

June 19th, 2015 12:08 pm by Kelly Garbato

Crazy Again Today

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, and suicide.

Review title pulled from the lyrics of Fiona Apple’s “Paper Bag,” which was a staple on my college-era depression playlists. It’ll click once you read the book, okay.)

Then I see the walls.

I spin a slow three-sixty in place, taking it all in. All four walls are covered with scraps of paper in different colors and shapes and textures, all jutting out at various angles. Lined paper ripped from spiral-bound notebooks. Plain paper, threehole punched. Graph paper, torn at the edges. Pages that have yellowed with age, along with napkins and Post-its and brown paper lunch bags and even a few candy wrappers.

Caroline’s watching me, and I take a few cautious steps closer to get a better look. I reach for one of the pages, running the corner between my thumb and forefinger, and that’s when I notice handwriting on each one, as distinctive as the paper itself. Loopy, flowing cursive. Tight, angular letters. Precise, blocky printing.

Wow.

Sixteen-year-old Samantha McAllister is dreading the start of junior year – and with it, the disappearance of “Summer Sam,” the better, braver, happier version of herself. It’s not that she’s ostracized or unpopular; just the opposite, in fact. She’s been best friends with Kaitlyn, Alexis, Olivia, and Hailey since kindergarten; collectively, they are known as the Crazy Eights (they’ve lost a few members over the years), THE “it girls” in school.

While these lifelong friends should provide Sam with some measure of support and stability, they’re just as likely to send her into an “Eights-induced thought spiral.” Led by head “Mean Girl” Kaitlyn, the clique is quick to pick apart each other’s hair, makeup, cloths, nicknames, taste in guys, you name it. So it’s no wonder that Sam hides her “crazy” from them. Imagine what they’d say if they knew that she’s suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) her whole life, and that her level of dysfunction is such that she’s been taking anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills and seeing a psychiatrist once a week for the past five years? No thanks.

The Eights seem to bring out the worst in Sam – so, at her psychiatrist’s suggestion, Sam decides to try making a few new friends this year. In pops Caroline who, with her stringy hair, ironic t-shirts, and aversion to makeup, is the complete opposite of the Eights. She finds Sam at her lowest, crying in the theater after being snubbed by her “friends” – and promises to show her something that will change her life: the Poet’s Corner, a secret poetry club that meets in a hidden room under the theater every Monday and Thursday.

There she discovers the catharsis of poetry, the acceptance that comes with true friendship, even her first real love in the form of AJ, the cute guy whose heart she and the Eights crushed so many years ago. But just as Sam’s starting to feel healthier – normal, even – a shocking discovery threatens to upend her recovery.

My love for this book is big and wide. It’s an emotional roller coaster, with an unexpected, twisty turny ending. Even though it’s best described a contemporary young adult fiction, it has an almost supernatural feel at times. The characters are complex and multidimensional and just a pleasure to get to know. I especially love Sue. I wish I had a Sue, you guys.

I don’t have OCD, though I have struggled with social anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember. (Literally. Some of my earliest memories are of having breakdowns as a toddler, tearing my hair out at the roots an banging my soft little noggin against the white ceramic tile of the bathroom wall.) Granted, it’s not the same; but social anxiety and OCD do have windows in the same mini-mall, okay. I can’t speak to everything, but I think Stone does a wonderful job on the obsessive side of things: the sufferer’s overwhelming helplessness to control persistent negative thoughts, no matter how illogical or ridiculous they may be. Like Sam says, it’s “like telling someone who’s having an asthma attack to just breath normally.” It’s just not that easy.

In the Author’s Note, Stone explains that it was the diagnosis of a family friend with OCD at the age of twelve that inspired her to write Every Last Word. She penned the novel with said friend’s input, as well as that of four mental health professionals, not to mention reams of academic and online research. The result is a nuanced, compassionate, compelling, and – dare I say? – accurate look at a teenager wrestling with anxiety and depression.

She also tried to portray a healthy and respectful relationship between Sam and her psychiatrist Sue – one that “mirrors the relationship between the real-life teen who inspired this story and her therapist for the past four years.” It’s such a lovely thing to behold, as is the support and commitment Sam receives from her family. When she starts to have an anxiety attack in the presence of the Eights, little sister Paige goes in to the lion’s den to cover for her, while mom talks her down from the ledge and engages in some DIY exposure therapy (which isn’t usually recommended in the home setting, as Stone is quick to point out).

Also beautiful are the new friendships Sam forges with the Poets, including AJ. I really enjoyed watching Sam blossom in this environment – and the Poet’s love of words certainly fed the geek in me.

Every Last Word is just a charming, heartwarming, enlightening read; even if you’re not usually one for “issues” YA, give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Sam suffers from OCD. AJ overcame stuttering with the help of music therapy. Emily’s mom is dying of cancer. Jessica is African-American. Sam’s psychiatrist Sue is Japanese. Sydney is described as “heavyset,” and she seems perfectly okay with that.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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