Book Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
A new YA novel from novelist Patrick Ness, author of the Carnegie Medal- and Kate Greenaway Medal-winning A Monster Calls and the critically acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a bold and irreverent novel that powerfully reminds us that there are many different types of remarkable.
What if you aren’t the Chosen One? The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?
What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.
Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.
Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.
2015 has really delivered some fantastic books. Add this one to my favorites list. I’m pretty much in love with this book, but I’ll try to not just gush on and on. TRY.
Here’s how this book is structured: Each chapter begins with a little summary, so we get:
Chapter the first, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.
But then the chapter goes on to talk about other stuff entirely–the things that are going on with the people who just live in the town, not the the kids referenced in the chapter setup. Tiny little bits from that storyline that carries through in the chapter descriptions show up in the main story, but from the view of Mikey and friends, who are mostly just witnessing whatever this Immortals business is from afar. It’s a brilliant setup.
It’s a month prior to graduation and Mel, Mikey, Henna, and Jared are spending their last few weeks all together before their post-high school lives split them up. Outside of the constant background threat of possible undead masses coming to destroy the town, the kids lead pretty normal lives. Mike is full of anxiety about his friends, his future, and his family. He suffers from OCD and can’t stop getting stuck in repetitive loops. Mel, who’s one year older than her brother Mike, is making up for the year of school she lost while battling anorexia. Henna, the object of Mike’s affection, is not super excited to be heading to a war-torn African country for the summer. And Jared? Well, he’s a little less normal. He’s three-quarters Jewish and one-quarter God. His mother was a half-Goddess. So what exactly is Jared a god of? Cats. Mikey starts to stress out more when Nathan moves to town five weeks before graduation. Henna seems interested in him, much to Mikey’s dismay, and he can’t help but think it’s super suspicious that Nathan’s arrival happens to coincide with a resurgence of supernatural activity.
There is a lot to love about this book. The structure is intriguing, the writing is smart and funny, and the characters are incredibly interesting and well-developed. I love how they interact with each other and care for each other. At one point, Mike’s OCD has made him wash his face until it’s raw. Jared dabs some moisturizer on it for him. In Mike’s narration, he says, “Yeah, I know most people would think it weird that two guy friends touch as much as we do, but when you choose your family, you get to choose how it is between you, too. This is how we work. I hope you get to choose your family and I hope it means as much to you as mine does to me.” These friends care deeply for one another (and explore just what exactly might be found in the depth of those feelings, with Mike noting very matter-of-factly that he and Jared have hooked up in the past–“And fine, he and I have messed around a few times growing up together, even though I like girls, even though I like Henna, because a horny teenage boy would do it with a tree trunk if it offered at the right moment….”). Their stories dovetail at times with the story of the indie kids waging war against a potential apocalypse (those poor indie kids, always battling the undead, ghosts, and vampires. At one point, Mike notes there are two more indie kids dead. Henna says, “This is worse than when they were all dying beautifully of cancer.” GOD I LOVE THIS BOOK), but they prove that daily teenage life is just as fraught and dramatic as the lives of The Chosen Ones.
Here’s what I want to talk about for the rest of the review: Mental health, therapy, and medication. Friends, I was cheering out loud while reading this. The characters have many frank discussions about these topics and I FINALLY felt like someone really did a great job showing the good that therapy and medication can do. An ongoing conversation many of us have been having is about the worrisome messages some books send regarding mental health and the stigma of diagnosis, treatment, and medication. (You can go back to my piece Mental Health Medications are Not Your Enemy for some more context.) As much as I want to quote every line related to these topics, I’ll just share a few. For background, Mikey has seen a therapist for his OCD and anxiety and been medicated in the past. He’s not currently seeing someone or being treated. Jared finds him endlessly washing his face. He says:
“There’s no shame in therapy, Mike… Or medicine. You shouldn’t have to go through this.”
When Mikey finally tells his mother (who is a self-absorbed politician) that he thinks he needs to see a psychiatrist again, that he needs to be medicated, she just says okay and helps him do that. For all of her other failings, she understands he needs help and makes sure he gets it.
Mike talks to his therapist about how awful the OCD is, how debilitating the anxiety feels, how he worries that if he can’t break himself out of a loop, the only way to end it will be to kill himself. He says, “I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well. I feel like I’m way down this deep, deep hole and I’m looking up and all there is is this little dot of light and I have to shout at the top of my lungs for anyone to hear me and even when I do, I say the wrong thing or they don’t really listen or they’re just humoring me.” His struggles are very much on the page and he wrestles with what to do to overcome them. His therapist says he’d like to start him back on medication. Mike makes a face.
“… Why are you making that face?”
“Medication is a … failure?”
“The biggest one. Like I’m so broken, I need medical help.”
“Cancer patients don’t call chemotherapy a failure. Diabetics don’t call insulin a failure.”
His therapist goes on to ask why he feels he’s responsible for his anxiety. During their fantastic discussion, he says to Mike, “Medication will address the anxiety, not get rid of it, but reduce it to a manageable level, maybe even the same level as other people so that—and here’s the key thing—we can talk about it. Make it something you can live with. You still have work to do, but the medication lets you stay alive long enough to do that work.”
As a person with anxiety disorder, as a parent raising a kid in therapy and on medication for anxiety disorder, as someone deeply invested in wanting teenagers to understand that there is help for their depression, or anxiety, or whatever, I applaud these scenes. They never felt preachy or forced. Mikey is honest, Jared is compassionate, the therapist is effective and optimistic.
It’s impossible to capture the brilliance of this book in a review, but I’m hoping you’ll go out and pick it up and experience it for yourself. This is the kind of book you finish reading and want to reread again just to savor it. I can’t wait to start recommending this to teens at the library.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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