“history is how we get to keep him.”
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)
You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.
I’m a seventeen-year-old grieving his favorite person.
We first meet Griffin Jennings on Monday, November 20th, 2016. It’s been exactly one week since his best friend and ex-boyfriend Theo McIntyre died: drowned in the Pacific Ocean while his new love, Jackson Wright, watched helplessly from the shore. Now Theo’s East Coast/West Coast lives are about to collide – over his casket, no less – as Jackson and Griffin meet for the first time at his funeral. Only things don’t play out exactly how you’d think.
Theo was most of Griffin’s firsts: first date, first kiss, first time, first love. Childhood friends, they came out to each on the L train; weeks later, they came out to their parents, together. (This was a happy scene, the sort of which all LGBTQ kids deserve.) Griffin always knew that he’d have to say goodbye to Theo, who’s one year older/ahead of him in high school – but his early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College sure upended the timeline. Griff broke up with Theo the day before he left, thinking he’d spare himself the pain of eventually becoming the dumpee – and, just two months later, Theo began seeing Jackson. Drama, heartbreak, passive-aggressive sniping, and betrayal ensue.
We’ve all been there before. Except Theo ups and dies before any of it can be resolved, and Griffin and Jackson (not to mention Wade, the third member of the Manhattan squad) are left to sort through the detritus of a life too shortly lived.
To complicate matters further, Griffin suffers from OCD – mostly manifested in directions (left is good) and numbers (odd is bad) – which is getting progressively worse in Theo’s absence and death.
So here’s the deal: I didn’t enjoy History Is All You Left Me as much as I expected to. More Happy Than Not was one of my favorite books of 2015. I didn’t think History Is All You Left Me would beat it, if only because I prefer science fiction to contemporary. And that’s certainly part of it. But also…something just felt off.
Griffin’s grief is palpable, and anyone who’s ever lost someone they love will find a lot to commiserate with. For me, this is four dogs and a grandmother in a little over three years (including a nearly two-year battle with cancer; the decade is getting off to shitty start). Many of Griffin’s thoughts and reactions I recognized in myself, so much so that they felt like a punch to the heart.
I’m still crying a little when we’re done. I can’t believe your entire life out here could be stored away in two boxes.
I have memory boxes for all my dogs. Peedee’s aside – he was the one who lived with cancer for ~22 months, and whose death we had plenty of time to prepare for – they’re all pitiful in size, considering how much room they occupy in my heart.
I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to go in. Theo, I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to go in to say goodbye to you.
You’re waiting inside. Not you, but you. I owe you a goodbye.
The trip to cremate them, to let their bodies go and say our final goodbyes.
I wish I never washed the damn hoodie now that you’re gone. It no longer smells like your grandmother’s old flower shop; it doesn’t have the dirt stains from all the times we spent at the park. It’s like you’ve been erased.
The day I realized I could no longer smell Ralphie the one-eyed wiener dog’s musk on my clothes and blankets and furniture? The worst. It happens so slowly you don’t even take note of it at the time, which is somehow even more of a kick in the soul.
Love. I love you; this isn’t a past-tense love.
Always. I’ll never stop loving my adopted, furry family. On days when the grief hits me especially hard, I like to think that the pain I feel in my chest is Kaylee, my daemon and soul mate, lawn dancing on/in my heart.
As an atheist who often envies others for the comfort they find in the afterlife, I loved Griffin’s ideas about alternate universes, and how Theo is alive and with him – maybe even watching him right now – in one or thousands of different worlds.
I think about alternate universes as we lay you to rest in this one. There are billions, trillions, existing all at once: one where we never broke up and you stayed in New York, one out of reach from oceans that have it in for you, one where we both moved to California for school, one where you quit school and left animation and Jackson behind because you missed me so much, one where we met halfway somewhere because you wanted me not only to be your future but to help you find it, one where we’re the sole survivors of the zombie-pirate apocalypse . . . countless more where things are right, maybe with some touches of wrong. But in them all, you and I are more than history. I have to believe these universes exist; it’s the only way to manage the suffering here.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – specifically that one scene in The Amber Spyglass where Lyra and Will lead the ghosts out of the world of the dead so that their particles can rejoin those of their daemons in the natural world – is the closest thing I have to a religion, or a Bible. But this alternate worlds theory? That’s definitely getting added to the mix.
Anyway, my point is it pains me to say this – as spot-on as Silvera is, vis-à-vis the spectrum of grief – but after a while, it also starts to feel a little drawn out. Not like “Get over it already!”-drawn out, but tedious-drawn out. To be fair, grief is tedious. It’s heavy and crushing and tiring, and seems like it will never stop. Until, one day, you wake up and realize that the day before wasn’t quite so unbearable.
Even so, the book started dragging in the middle. The experience might very well be true to life, but that’s not always a good thing.
The story is told in alternating chapters, post-Theo present day narration, positioned opposite flashbacks about the development – and then breakdown – of Griffin and Theo’s relationship, leaving up to Theo’s death. There are copious hints about lies and betrayal, leading the reader (or at least this reader) to imagine all sorts of awfulness. In the end, what transpired is pretty mundane and par for the course. On the one hand, the buildup feels like it was for nothing – but, had Silvera written a more dramatic reveal, I think it would have felt cheap and gimmicky. So it’s bit of a Catch-22.
What I did appreciate about this format is the juxtaposition of grief with humor, depression with unexpected moments of levity. (The buying condoms scene? Priceless.) This made Griffin’s loss feel all the more real and palpable, and also provides us the occasional release.
The diversity is great too, and I’d expect no less from Silvera. He could’ve just made Griffin and Theo gay, but he goes beyond this, exploring their sexuality with the nuance it deserves. For example, Griffin is shocked to learn that Theo is bisexual. While it’s true that he’s spoken of his attraction to girls in the past, Griff just assumed it was an act, a cover; after all, this was before any of them were out. But nope, Theo was being real and maybe Griff was projecting, just a little? And the plot like with Wade was wonderful: raw and genuine and moving. Forget about Team Theo or Team Griffin; I’m Team Wade, all the way.
(I write this on the tail end of #BiWeek 2016, in the wake of the VOYA garbage fire, which for me really underscored the lack of bi representation in YA. This is especially egregious considering that one in three American young adults identify as bisexual.)
Like Griffin, I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life; though I have social anxiety to Griffin’s OCD, so I can’t really speak to whether the depiction of OCD is accurate or not. But the more general experience of anxiety – for example, the panic attacks when Griffin is unable to act on his compulsions – is easily recognizable and feels genuine. I could see pieces of my own disorder in Griffin: thoughts that you know are irrational yet are helpless to ignore or control; the overwhelming, crippling anxiety, and how it can dominate your every waking moment; the humiliation of letting others know just how “damaged” you are; how the disorder sometimes waxes and wanes, depending on what else is going on in your life.
Overall, there are elements I really liked, even if I sometimes struggled through the story. I feel like a little editing – maybe cutting a few dozen pages of material – might go a long way towards tightening things up. There’s nothing you can do about the lack of science fiction (though I feel like there was maybe a nod to More Happy Than Not in the genie comment? plus the AUs were nice!), but that’s totally a personal preference. And hey, if yours run the other way, it’s entirely possible that you’ll enjoy History Is All You Left Me more than I did.
3.5 stars, rounded…I don’t know! I can’t make up my mind!
I’ll go with four, since that’s a nice, even number, and I’d hate to add to Griffin’s stress. Even though Wade’s probably right and that’s unhealthy. But I can relate, so.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: When we first meet him, seventeen-year-old Griffin Jennings is mourning the loss of his best friend and ex-boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Theo McIntyre. The two grew up together in Manhattan and started dating when Griff was fifteen. They were each others’ firsts in many ways: first time, first serious relationship, etc. They came out to each other – and, later, to their parents – together. When Theo got early admission to the animation program at Santa Monica College, Griffin preemptively broke up with him, because he was afraid he’d be the dump-ee otherwise. A few months later, Theo started dating a guy named Jackson Wright. A year later, Theo drowned in the Pacific Ocean, right in front of Jackson’s eyes.
Though they loathed each other while Theo was alive, Griffin and Jackson find common ground in their grief and tentatively turn to one another for comfort. They end up having sex, but ultimately decide to stay friends. Through flashbacks, we also learn that, after Theo started dating Jackson, Griffin and Wade – the third member of their Manhattan “squad” – started hooking up.
Griffin is gay and out of the closet. Wade identifies as gay, which comes as a surprise to Griffin; Wade only came out to Theo. Theo is bisexual, which also comes as a surprise to Griffin; he thought that, when they were younger, Theo was just pretending to like girls to hide his sexuality.
Griffin suffers from OCD, which usually manifests in directions (Griff prefers to stand to everyone’s left side) and numbers (“There’s also my counting thing, where I prefer everything to be an even number, with a couple of exceptions, like one and seven.”) He also displays ticks, like pulling on his earlobe or scratching his palm when anxious. If he can’t satisfy his compulsions – say, he’s seated to someone’s right side in class – things are likely to escalate to a panic attack. His symptoms have progressively gotten worse since Theo left – and then drowned – and, by story’s end, his parents have forced him to see a psychiatrist (above and beyond the school guidance counselor he has a free pass to visit).
Griffin’s cousin Remy is a homophobe who starts bullying him after Theo’s death, during Thanksgiving dinner no less. Griffin punches him – twice – and the family walks out. Remy’s mom Rosie is sufficiently embarrassed “for creating such an asshole.” (Not that she’s necessarily to blame, but we all know the feeling of being ashamed of a racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. relative.)
Griffin’s 89-year-old grandmother suffers from dementia and keeps asking about Theo, even after he’s died.
Griffin’s mom suffers from chronic back pain, e.g., “Mom sees me first and pops up, which I know is bad on her back, especially on rainy days like today.”
Jackson’s parents are divorced, and his mother uses a wheelchair ever since “the accident.” (Griffin realizes it’s wrong to pry just to satisfy his own curiosity, and she doesn’t volunteer details, so we never learn what exactly happened.)
Wade is black (“Wade is also betting Theo a dollar for every time someone calls him ‘black Dr. Who.'”), and Jackson’s high school friends, Anika and Veronika, are described as dark-skinned. “Anika has long braided hair and a lean, muscular frame—probably from running track. Veronika’s hair is shaved and she’s got piercings in her nose, left eyebrow, ears, and the corner of her lower lip.” Veronika had an abortion, which her then-boyfriend promised to help her through, but he bailed and she started seeing a campus psychologist to help her deal with it.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a