Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Love and Grieving: Emery Lord's THE START OF ME AND YOU

A few years after we graduated from college, the younger brother of a friend of mine died unexpectedly. I don't recall the precise cause—some sort of undetected heart condition, I think—but I do remember my friend talking about how awkward it was to have to share the funeral and other grieving rituals with his brother's girlfriend. She and his brother had only been dating for a few months, hardly enough time to look beyond the initial rosy glow of infatuation to discover anything of meaning about the young man. Certainly, she had none of the memories that my friend and his family shared, and mourned. Having this stranger in the midst of their mourning added a second, double burden to the grief they were just now starting to feel.

Perhaps that's why my initial reaction to Emery Lord's new YA novel, The Start of Me and You, was tepid at best. Its first-person narrator, Paige Hancock, is in a similar position to that of my friend's brother's girlfriend: on the cusp of her junior year of high school, Paige is hoping to break free of her identity as the "Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned." But this is an understated book, a book with an emotional impact that sneaks up on you gradually, catching you unaware, as it explores myriad types of grief. Grieving for a young man's life yes, but also grieving for what-ifs that can never be realized; for time lost to illness; for friendships that change and die; for parents who aren't a part of your life; for grandparents who lose the vitality they once had.

Living in small-town Illinois, everyone knows Paige as the girl who was dating Aaron when he accidentally drowned during a summer Boy Scout retreat. Even a year after Aaron's death, Paige still gets "That Look"—"full of pity... eyebrows and mouth downturned, head tilted like a curious bird"—from people she barely knows. Paige feels both beleaguered and like a fraud; she herself only dated Aaron for two months, after all. "Compared to his parents and friends, I barely knew him" (4).

To push herself past "post-mourning purgatory," Paige decides to make a plan, a proactive plan to make the coming year better than the last one (5). Her best friend Tessa suggests that Paige is doing a kind of yoga thing, something she calls "beginner's mind": "trying to approach new experiences with no preexisting judgments.... That way, you're open to anything that happens" (11).

Paige's plan consists of five goals for the future. The first three—attending a few parties and/or social events, events which she actively avoided during sophomore year; joining an extracurricular school group, or rejoining one of the groups in which she had been involved during her first year of high school; and going on a date—are ones which she aims to accomplish this year. The fourth—to travel—is inspired by her grandmother, whose stories and photographs of her trip to Paris have filled Paige with a sense of anticipation. It's the last one, though, that may be the toughest—to swim. For ever since Aaron's death, Paige has had reoccurring nightmares of herself, not Aaron, drowning.

Paige's supportive group of girlfriends help her navigate her first social events, and Paige herself has honed in on a potential boy to date: Ryan Chase, the hunk upon whom she's been crushing since middle school. Ryan's suddenly at loose ends, now that his long-time girlfriend, as well as her popular crowd, as dumped him. Paige catalogues each small interaction with Ryan with minute attention: Ryan spoke to me today; Ryan bought me a hot dog at the football game; Ryan picked me up so we could hang out with our mutual friends. Paige knows Ryan's a good guy, from watching the way he interacted with his older sister when she had cancer. Why, then, can't the two of them ever seem to say more than a few stilted sentences to each other?

To Paige's surprise, it's not Ryan, but Ryan's cousin Max, who becomes the friend of the opposite sex with whom she can talk. Rather than rejoining chorus or Key Club, Paige joins up for Quiz Bowl, and since Max is the team's captain, Paige ends up spending a lot of time with the airplane-loving, book-reading, babysitting Max. From their first extended conversation (in which Paige and Max argue about the relative appeal of Elizabeth vs. Jane Bennet: "Jane is deeply underappreciated," declares Max) to their sharing of secrets they've never told anyone else, Paige and Max spark each other's intellects. But geeky Max isn't the kind of guy Paige is attracted to—or is he?

There are several subtle feminist messages scattered throughout the subplots of Lord's story: Paige's ardent feminist friend Morgan, who upbraids their history teacher for slut-shaming Anne Boleyn; Paige's friend Kayleigh, who learns to see beyond the stars and rainbows of first love to understand that it's how a guy treats you and your friends that really matters. And Paige's path, too, to moving beyond grief takes some clearly feminist turns, especially in how she works to achieve the final two goals on her bucket list. Lord does not suggest that falling in love is a cure-all for grief, but her story does set forth the hope that good friends, as well as caring romantic partners, can provide an extra paddle as one navigates its turbulent waters.

Photo credits:
Grief: Hellagraff

The Start of Me and You
Bloomsbury, 2015

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