by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
What happens when a teenager loses her support system? Nina LaCour's We Are Okay (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm) is a hard read in some ways, but it is also beautifully written and explores how it's possible to find a glimmer of hope amid heartbreak and despair. (Thanks to Jen for choosing this one as one of our Unabridged buddy reads!)
Readers meet Marin, who is alone in a dorm room, preparing to spend the winter break on campus despite the fact that almost no one else will be there. She is constructing a plan for herself to pass the interminable, desperately lonely time. Marin is also counting down, with a sense of both dread and longing, to the arrival and brief visit of Mabel, a dear friend from high school who is coming all the way to New York from California to see her. We can tell there has been a rift between Marin and Mabel, but it's unclear what led to the fracture in their friendship.
The feeling of loneliness and despair pervades as the reader gets to know Marin in her isolated dorm room. As the novel progresses, we learn more about her past and discover that Marin grew up with her grandfather, Gramps, after her mother, a well-known surfer in the area where they lived, drowned while surfing when Marin was very young. We also begin to discover more about Mabel and how their friendship, and more, came to be. But these flashbacks keep bringing us back to the harsh, devastating present reality where Marin struggles to function.
“I was okay just a moment ago. I will learn how to be okay again.” (216)
As Mabel arrives to visit Marin, the two girls find their way into uncovering what led to their fracture and Marin's abrupt departure from California. I want to avoid spoilers, so I'll leave it there, but I wanted to share what I absolutely loved about this book. Marin goes through some very dark times, and she really is alone at some points when she desperately needs support. However, as she spends time with Mabel, Marin learns to recognize that these moments of despair do not last forever, and she discovers that holding onto that awareness in her mind can help her get through the darkest of days.
“Someday is an open word. It could mean tomorrow or it could be decades away. If someone had told me while I was huddled under the motel blankets that Mabel and I would be together again someday, that I would tell her the story of what happened someday and feel a little better, a little less afraid, I wouldn’t have believed it. And it’s only been four months since then, which is not long to wait for someday.” (227)
I loved how LaCour shows us, including young adult readers who might be facing circumstances not so different from Marin's reality, that "someday" might not be so far away and that recognizing the possibility of a better future can help us get through the traumatic and heartbreaking present. As the title and the quotes I shared show, the focus throughout is on how to find a way to be okay amid hardship."It’s only been four months since then, which is not long to wait for someday."
LaCour also shows us, through Mabel and her family, just how much it can mean to show up for someone else. Mabel's decision to come visit Marin in New York is certainly a gamble that could have been disastrous for her, but we see how important that decision is as the story unfolds.
Writing this, I feel like this sounds like an extremely dark book, but I felt like it was fast moving and ultimately very hopeful and healing. I also appreciated the authenticity with which LaCour wrote Marin, Mabel, and the secondary characters in this novel. Marin's struggles, including her decision to flee the life she'd known, rang true to me. LaCour doesn't turn away from the harsh reality, but she sheds a compassionate and hopeful light on a hard situation, and she reminds readers that we were okay before and we can be okay again. Sometimes, I think that's what teenagers going through tough times really need to hear.
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