Review by Tess Tabak
In You are the Everything, a new YA novel by Karen Rivers, a high school student struggles to piece together her life following a horrific event.
Elyse Schmidt has always wanted to date Josh Harris, but he’s never noticed her. However, now that they’re the sole survivors of a plane crash, they begin to bond. Elyse finally has everything she wanted. All it took was the death of her best friend, everyone in her marching band class, and some 200-odd strangers.
If you’re looking for a YA novel as some kind of escape/fantasy, you’re in the wrong place.You are the Everything deals with some tough stuff: grief, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. However, even though I generally fall into the “escapism/pleasure” YA camp, I sort of enjoyed reading this book.
Enjoy is the wrong word. This book is a bit like a plane crash: it’s bright, shiny, impossible to look away. I read the whole thing fairly quickly (though this may have something to do with the fact that I was on an airplane at the time). (On that note – Do not read this book on a plane. In about 5 minutes I went from “Oh cute! They’re on an plane too!” to “Oh no! I’m on a plane too.”)
Rivers spends the whole book creating a glimmering fantasy life for Elyse. The novel moves to fairly fantastical territory. In the aftermath of the crash, she gets to date her dream crush. She convinces her parents to move to her dream home, a Wyoming farm house, and buy her a pony. She even gets the blonde hair she was jealous of another student for having: stress from the crash causes alopecia, and it grows back a striking platinum blond.
Nothing is as perfect as it seems though: Josh Harris, Elyse learns, is actually kind of boring. She’s unhappy with the attention her new “manic pixie dream girl” look gets. And no matter where she goes, the plane crash haunts her.
The book is disjointed, purposely so. In the crash, Elyse receives a traumatic brain injury that leaves her unable to form memories, and we experience her life in the skips and starts of her missing time. There’s a kind of dream-logic going on: she doesn’t quite understand what’s happening to her, why she’s in class one moment and riding horses with a Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike the next. The author uses some very experimental techniques for a young adult book, which I appreciated.
However, the book was also very disappointing in a way. The novel’s ending effectively negates the middle of the book, leaving me feeling like a popped balloon. Rivers asks you to sit with a lot of unpleasant feelings throughout Elyse’s journey. Even though it was done on purpose, the disjointedness makes the book hard to read. The effect of the time skips is kind of disorienting. Elyse is bored and checked out of her life following the crash. She’s frustrated, and angry about what’s happened. If an author asks me to deal with discomfort to the length and degree that this book does, I’d prefer if it went somewhere. Instead, I felt like I’d had the rug ripped out from under me. Worse, I could see the end coming from miles and miles away (Rivers adeptly uses foreshadowing throughout) so it was less like a surprise and more like stepping into a pit that I knew was there. Like a crash, You are the Everything never quite builds up to anything satisfying.
To be fair, I think if the “surprise” ending genuinely takes you by surprise – if you’re reading it as if you’re on a journey with her figuring out what’s happening – the book could be significantly more enjoyable. I could see a tween or young teen reader really enjoying this book, and that is the correct age demographic. A younger reader might not have called the “twist” ending as early as I did.
The author also makes a choice to make almost every character, including Elyse, somewhat insufferable. Elyse is a hypochondriac who’s obsessed with death, and likes to rattle off facts, like lists of selfie-related deaths. Her boyfriend, Josh Harris, is a pretty milquetoast sort of guy. To be fair, again, the author did this intentionally, and I get what she was going for. Josh was only an infatuation, and Elyse didn’t really have enough information to know if she wanted to date him (and certainly she didn’t want it to happen like this).
But at the same time, handling so many unlikeable or just not really drawn out characters is a hard task, one that perhaps Rivers shouldn’t have attempted with all of the other experimental aspects of the book. While the prose is lovely at times, like “The interruption is so abrupt that you lose your place in yourself, as though you’re a book that you’ve just dropped on the floor, halfway through a sentence,” Elyse’s Josh obsessions makes parts of this book quasi-unreadable. Rivers repeats “Josh Harris” so much at points that the words become basically meaningless. “Thinking about Josh Harris is the background soundtrack of your life, an entire album called Thinking about Josh Harris.” I realize this is sort of the point, so I guess your enjoyment of this book may vary by your personal tolerance for a teen girl’s obsessions.
Like I said, this is a hard book to write about. Although certain aspects of this book didn’t quite add up for me (while it begins and ends in a strong place, the middle sags a little – I think this might have been better lengthed as a novella), this is a thought-provoking, unique book. Basically, while parts of this book irritated me, it was an overall enjoyable read – and I’m still thinking about it, weeks later. I think it would appeal to young readers looking for books in the vein of John Green’s tragic, quasi-pretentious Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.