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We Are Okay

We Are OkayWe Are Okay, Nina LaCour
Dutton Books for Young Readers, February 2017
Reviewed from ARC
Four stars

I almost didn’t finish We Are Okay. Not because it’s bad–in fact, it’s quite beautiful–but because reading it required a lot of emotional labor. When fiction pokes at pieces of your heart that you thought you had protected and hidden away, it requires strength and stamina to push through when all you actually want to do is bury the book at the bottom of your to-read pile.

All of this is to say that I had a deeply emotional experience reading Nina LaCour’s novel. Critics, myself included, tend to separate heart from head in their professional reviews. Here though, LaCour’s ability to access and communicate so many raw and complicated feelings is extraordinary and so relevant to any discussion of this book. I couldn’t have cried through the last 40 pages of We Are Okay without LaCour’s precise and detailed sentence-level writing. This is a small book densely packed with complicated people, feelings, unimaginable loss, heartbreak, and so much love.

Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read the book (and you really should) consider yourself warned.

Yes, this is a sad book but LaCour ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. Marin, in the tight embrace of her best friend’s mother, finally has a sensory memory of her mother. LaCour reminds the reader that every moment of life is filled with possibility and love. It’s a supremely cathartic scene and the perfect end to Marin’s emotional journey. It’s clear that she still has work ahead of her, but the reader senses that there is hope. Ultimately, this is a story about finding the courage to love and connect despite traumatic loss and grief.

We Are Okay alternates between the present, Marin’s first winter break at college, and the past, a few months prior to her sudden departure from home with nothing but her phone and wallet. In many ways, LaCour sets us up for a mystery. Why did Marin leave without a word to the people closest to her? What happened between her and her best friend Mabel? What happened to Marin’s grandfather, who has been her only family since the death of her mother?

LaCour allows these questions to linger. As Marin wanders the empty hallways of her dormitory, waiting for Mabel to arrive for a brief visit, worrying about what their interaction will be like after months of silence, the past hovers over everything like a haunting. As the answers are slowly revealed, the details are not as important as the emotional truths they reveal. The beauty is in the way that the character development, setting, themes, and story all work as a cohesive whole. All of the elements interact well with and serves the others.

Marin (a fitting name for the daughter of a surfer) has been raised by her grandfather, a man who is less of a family member and more like an eccentric roommate. So much is unsaid between them but most significant is the silence surrounding the memory of Marin’s mother. In the absence of any sense of who her mother was, it’s no surprise that Marin has a fascination with orphans and ghosts. In chapter three, we see Marin in English class discussing The Turn of the Screw. She proposes that rather than find proof for or against the ghosts’ existence, she’d rather focus on whether the staff is conspiring against the governess. “We can search for the truth, we can convince ourselves of whatever we want to believe, but we’ll never actually know,” she says (24). These scenarios play out in Marin’s story as she discovers secrets her grandfather has been keeping from her; secrets that had, in essence, made her question the ghost of her mother. Marin must learn to make peace with not knowing, especially when the answers could only come from the dead.

Orphans and ghost stories recur as a motif at the end of the novel with a reference to Jane Eyre; Marin and Mabel watch the 2011 version and the direct connection to Marin’s life is so clear. Like Marin, Jane is an orphan who lives with a man who is fundamentally unknowable because he lies and keeps secrets. Both hide women from the protagonist–Gramps hid the physical memories of Marin’s mother while Rochester literally hides his wife in the attic. LaCour describes these parallels as the movie prompts Marin to consider her grandfather. Making peace with the not knowing and allowing herself to forgive, even just a little bit.

Marin’s voice is also distinctive and strong. The cadences LaCour uses in the scenes when Marin is particularly nostalgic are lilting and feel like nostalgic waves. When describing the present, the sentences are spare and reflect the winter cold and the isolation that Marin feels. There’s so much poetry in the language but the book never feels overwritten.

I could ramble on for longer but what did you think? In a year when grief seems to reign supreme, I certainly hold this book above the rest as the most authentic and honest story about loss. With four stars I would be surprised if it doesn’t land on at least a few of the end-of-year best lists and in serious Printz conversations.

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. I read this shortly before it came out, and then made all of my friends read it a few weeks later so I could reread along with them. What you say about the emotional intensity of the writing really echoes my experience.

    Every time I recommend this book, though, I have to preface it by saying “I know the premise is completely implausible”–in my experience as a student and as a university employee, no college is ever going to leave a student alone in a dorm over holidays with only a groundsman as backup. It’s a safety hazard; it’s a financially poor decision (heating a huge building for one student); I just can’t believe it would happen in the 2010s. (If you know of a college in New York that would do this, please speak up!)

    It’s not the point of the book. But the setting is essential for the way the book feels–spare, out of time and place, almost fairy-tale-ish (with the groundsman in the role of, say, Red Riding Hood’s or Snow White’s woodsman). Does it matter if it’s inaccurate and implausible? I’m still turning it over in my mind, and it goes from being “moderate pro” to “moderate con” depending on the day.

    • Kate, I’m so glad you brought this up! When it comes to implausibility issues, I’m usually fairly forgiving about things that don’t really matter terribly much to the package as a whole. However, in this case, the plot device of Marin alone at her dorm over the holidays (no matter the point of the book or not) lingers in the readers mind, and for that reason I found myself taken out of the plot more than I should have been. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a well-written book, but flawed in such a way that I cannot see it making it to the final round.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Thanks for this feedback. I actually never even considered that the college wouldn’t allow her to stay over the break! I went to college in Manhattan so I know next to nothing about schools with more traditional campuses.

      Even with that potential flaw, I don’t think that it negates the impact of the rest of the novel for me. I’d have to reread it with this in mind to know for sure but ultimately, being alone in the dorm is so essential to the mood that I could see LaCour and/or her editors deciding that it was worth a bit of inaccuracy to create a specific tone.

  2. My issue with the book was the treatment of the grandfather’s secret. There was such a buildup of tension around the secret that I was beginning to suspect he was a serial killer or something equally bad. When they revealed what his secret really was, I found myself kind of disappointed that all that build up did not lead to more. I am not saying that it would not feel like a betrayal, but it was not as bad as I had pictured it in my mind.

  3. Wow. What a good review/analysis of the book. I missed all of the Jane Eyre references and similarities. The book went thud for me and I instantly wrote a NO next to my list of possible Mock Printz books because of all of the implausible situations… No teenager would be so incurious as to NEVER go to the back of the house… No teenager would fly across the country and stay at a dive-motel before attending college without packing some clothes and other items and saying goodbye… No college would let one student stay on campus alone looked after by the grounds keeper./ The writing was good but the implausible situations just wrecked the book for me.But now that I think of the book through the lens of Jane Eyre, I might be enticed to go back and reread it with a new set of expectations.

  4. Although I agree with the implausibility, that wasn’t my issue. I thought the characters were underdeveloped and I felt the romantic relationship between Marin and Mabel was inconsequential to the plot. If the girls were just best friends the plot would have been unaffected. I’m pretty sure their history and its subtly was intentional because I don’t think LaCour would make such a rookie mistake but it wasn’t strong enough.

    I also didn’t think Marin’s voice was all that new or refreshing. I felt the ending was too neat, too quick, and too convenient.

    I did like that the book didn’t define their relationship; that was nice.

    Overall, the lack of character development made it difficult for me to connect to Marin or Mabel. I’m also unfamiliar with Jane Eyre so that went over my head.

    I think this will be considered but I’ve read better books this year that could overshadow this book.

  5. I absolutely loved this book. It is SO tightly written, and such a brilliant portrait of the paralysis of depression. And the San Francisco stuff has SUCH a potent sense of place. I found it hopeful in a pretty damn hopeless time, and that hope felt EARNED, not arbitrary. To me, the Jane Eyre parallels were pretty explicit (and there’s also some 100 Years of Solitude in there) — to me, the literary call-outs and the sheer poetry and economy of the text made the lack of “realism” not-problematic. I’ve been reading so many overblown, blowsy, overlong, adjective-and-adverb-stuffed EPICS lately, the shortness and sheer DISCIPLINE of this one really blew my socks off.

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