I first became interested in Nina LaCour's writing when I read The Disenchantments back in 2013. I actually feel like I should have picked up her latest novel, We Are Okay, much sooner than I did. I mean, it did end up winning the 2018 Printz Award, which is no small thing. Either way, it's here now. And as always, I was excited to see what story LaCour would tell next, as well as what emotions and issues she would explore. Also, what made me even more excited about this book is that some of it takes place on a college campus, a setting I feel like I do not see enough of in YA literature.
The Situation: Marin just finished her first semester of college and is now prepared to hunker down in the dorms, alone, during the entire winter break, in New York. It would perhaps make more sense for her to go home for Christmas, like everyone else in her building, but even four months later, Marin is no mood to travel over 3,000 miles back to California to face what she ran away from. For as long as she can remember, it was always just her and her grandfather, whom she called Gramps. She occupied the front of the house, and Gramps took the two rooms in the back. They would always meet up in the middle for food, Gramps' lectures, and whatever else that constituted a normal family life. But since his sudden death just a few weeks before Marin was supposed to leave for college, she has left everything behind, as even her memories are often too painful to think about.
The Problem: Of course there have been people back home who have attempted to contact Marin. It may have just been her and Gramps in the house, but he had his poker friends, and she had school friends who cared for her. One of them, Mabel, has even taken it upon herself to travel across the country to see Marin, away from sunny California and into the snowy landscape that is New York in the winter. After months of ignoring Mabel's texts, Marin thinks about the visit with dread, even as she prepares for it by shopping for groceries and making her room presentable. Even before Mabel arrives, her fast approaching visit has Marin reflecting on the last moments of senior year, and her final summer at home as she knew it, and Gramps as she knew him. Mabel's visit may finally force her to face what happened, why she ran, and the life she thought she knew.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in and around an unnamed college campus in New York, and around the San Francisco Bay area for the flashbacks. Marin tells the story of her current situation alone in the nearly abandoned dorm hall, and the months leading up to when she left for college. The transition from high school to college can be complicated enough, but Marin is also dealing with the added grief of her grandfather's death, and what she has learned since. Then there is the guilt she feels over what she could not do for him, and how she has completely abandoned her old life since. This grief and guilt are naturally central to the novel, but so is the idea of family and how it is not necessarily always made up of people that are related to you. Also essential are the friends that will stick by you no matter, even to the point of traveling across the country after many unanswered text messages. And the grief that Marin feels of course comes from the loss of a loved one, but also at the revelation of not knowing someone as well as she thought she did.
My Verdict: Honestly, this one took awhile to get going for me. It could be a testament to the grief Marin is wading through. It could be the way she is telling her story. It also could be the harsh setting of Christmas Break in cold and snow-covered New York, even with the flashbacks to sunny California in other chapters. Either way, it was not until well over halfway through that I began to be truly invested in this story. But once the book got there, there was no turning back. This is not to say that the grief in the first half does not feel real, or that Marin is not relatable, or even that the story is not interesting. I suppose as Marin begins to open up, so did the book, at least for me. By the end, I was reminded as to why I first started reading LaCour's work five years ago.
Favorite Moment: When Marin stocks the refrigerator in the communal kitchen and proceeds to label all of her food, even though she will be the only one in the building for at least three weeks.
Favorite Character: There are actually quite a few options here, but I think I will go with Hannah, Marin's roommate in college, who is actually only in the very beginning of the book before leaving for Christmas Break, but her presence is always felt. After having met Marin for the first time on move-in day, Hannah has taken it upon herself to be the best friend and roommate she can be. Always encouraging, always willing to talk, and even willing to shield Marin when she is confronted with something she does not feel like handling, Hannah is the friend we all need when we are hurting, especially when we are also far from home.
Recommended Reading: The Disenchantments remains my favorite LaCour book, but Hold Still is probably the one she is most known for.