Friday, May 9, 2008

Parting is all she knows of Hell (review of All we Know of Heaven)

Jacquelyn Mitchard is a quiet gift to the genre. Her YA books don't get huge splashy marketing campaigns or movies or fan clubs, but THEY OUGHT TO. Her first YA offering, 2007's Now You See Her, continues to haunt me nearly a year after I read it. Her second YA book, All We Know of Heaven, is out this month, and it is worth a read.

The plot: Best friends Maureen and Bridget have been inseparable since kindergarten. Now in high school, they are nearly identical in appearance, with their short but strong stature and similar green eyes. Driving through snow just before Christmas, Maureen's crappy white Toyota crosses the center line of a highway and hits a truck head on. The truck driver is unharmed but both Maureen and Bridget are rushed to the hospital with a myriad of injuries. One of the girls dies and the other is in a coma for six weeks; the doctors are unsure that she'll ever be anything more than a vegetable.

The text message goes out the evening of the accident: M IS DOA.

Maureen's family holds a funeral and burial and are just starting to move on with their lives when the girl everyone believes must be Bridget comes out of her coma. For a while she's in and out of reality, but she is sure of a few things: She is not in heaven, she is not dead, and she is not Bridget.

When Maureen is finally able to communicate her true identity, her small Minnesota town isn't sure whether to ostracize her or embrace her. She's got a long road to go towards recovery, a road filled with physical therapy, romance, fighting and communication breakdowns. Maureen has to rebuild not only her body's abilities but her life, which in many ways both physical and emotional can never be the same. Bridget's family hates her for surviving and half the town doesn't know what to make of her. The one person who stays loyal to Maureen is Danny, who used to be Bridget's boyfriend, but the one person Maureen wants more than anything is Bridget. For the first time in her life, Maureen has the opportunity to stand on her own talents, out from under popular (if domineering) Bridget's shadow. Unfortunately, the accident has left her with communication problems.

Why you'll love it: If you're thinking, "I saw that episode of House!" did. This book is based on that same true story used for the plotline of an ep of House. But what the episode of House doesn't go into is what happens to friends and families affected by the accident long after most of the pieces have been picked up. All we Know of Heaven is all about the pieces Maureen has to pick up after the accident, and how grieving affects those close to both her and Bridget. While her family stands by her, she has to learn a new place socially, take on new pursuits and adapt to the idea of not being able to do the things she once loved to do. Using a third-person narrative (YES! What is with all the first-person books lately?), Mitchard is able to step back from the characters and allow the reader to see how the accident and loss of Bridget deeply affects a wide cast of flawed characters. It's funny; most authors who tell instead of show end up writing really awful books, but Mitchard doesn't. She does a LOT of telling rather than showing, but somehow it works, perhaps because her narrative voice has a wisdom to it you can only get with the omniscient viewpoint. In any event, Mitchard uses a "telling" narration to her advantage.

Like Now You See Her, this is a haunting book, one that should generate discussion.

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