Apparently it’s “YA Books about Younger Sisters Who Lie and Older Sisters with Psychological Problems Triggered by Strange Incidents” week here at LitHacker Central. First The Opposite of Hallelujah, now All You Never Wanted.
Verdict: This book seems to explore the different ways that lying to others and lying to yourself can be damaging. While this book has some strong writing and explores some interesting psychological issues, there are too many aspects that seem rather unrealistic, and the ending is somewhat abrupt. If you’re going to choose just ONE unstable older sister/lying younger sister book this week, choose The Opposite of Hallelujah instead.
Perfect for: People who like psychological fiction or somewhat unreliable narrators.
Summary: Thea and her older sister Alex are now living in a too-extravagant house (nicknamed “Camelot” by Thea) in tony Greenwich, Connecticut after their mom marries a rich man. Before this marriage, the girls and their divorced mother were barely getting by in their tiny apartment but they had each other and were pretty close. Now their mom seems to be always flying somewhere with her new husband – for vacations or charity events – and the girls are often left alone to adjust to their new reality. Told alternately in a forceful first person (Thea) and distancing third person (Alex), we learn that these sisters have dealt with the changes in their lives in very different ways. Formerly nerdy Thea has decided that conspicuous consumption and outrageous but borderline believable lies will make her interesting and popular. Meanwhile, Alex, who has always been somewhat of a golden girl, seems to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown that is getting progressively worse – for a specific reason that is revealed later in the novel. Alex feels repulsed at the idea of eating and will also often be frozen in place by an intangible fear – her reaction to the upsetting incident in her recent past is causing her to slowly disappear, both mentally and physically. Younger sister Thea is simultaneously protective of her fragile older sister and secretly gleeful that she has a chance to usurp Alex’s popularity, which might just include stealing her sexy badboy boyfriend Joshua.
Thea’s narration grabs your attention with its audacity, pride, and jealousy. Sometimes reading Alex’s detached third person narration is kind of a downer, so Thea’s vitality almost feels like fun, even while you may want to yell at her, “Gah! Stop! Why are you doing these things?” Thea’s bad behavior includes inventing attention-grabbing lies that she has to immediately damage control: she equates her lies to performing an exhilarating high-wire act, and it is fascinating to see how she tries to squirm out of the uncomfortable situations she creates. You might not admire Thea as a person, but her ability to manufacture drama and strife is riveting, and you do somewhat empathize with her desire to reinvent herself. You also catch glimpses of old, nerdy Thea – the Thea that was encouraged by her freshman English teacher to be a writer and the Thea that unreservedly adored her older sister Alex. In her own mind, Thea is the heroine of this story and she assumes that the world is rooting for her, or that through sheer will, the world will at least have to take notice of her. As a reader, we see Thea as desperate, manipulative, immature, and kind of pathetic. I always enjoy unreliable narrators, and Thea is a great example of one. I should also say here that Thea’s narrative demonstrates how talented author Griffin is at crafting impactful writing – there were many turns of phrase that just leaped of the page.
I want to keep this spoiler free, because the particular scene I’m thinking about took me by surprise, in a good way. Basically, Alex has been dating blue-collar pot dealer and no-longer-in-high school Joshua for awhile. He’s not the best boyfriend ever, but he’s stuck with Alex as she’s started falling apart. He might not be helping her all that much, but he hasn’t run away. I believe it’s mentioned that Alex has felt too hollow and depressed to have had sex with Joshua for some time now. So when Alex spontaneously initiates a hookup with another guy it is quite a surprise to both the reader and to Alex herself. The hookup is exciting, rejuvenating, comforting…and ultimately confusing to Alex. I’ve never seen a romantic scene like this in YA before, but it was one of the most realistic and interesting parts of the Alex story.
Maybe it’s unfair to call this one a hack, since the story as it was published probably couldn’t exist if there had been just one adult who had any idea what was going on with Thea and Alex. But still, where were all the adults? Mom and step-dad were conveniently away for the timeline of this story, and other than step-dad’s money, their presence is negligible. It’s difficult to square the sisters’ pre-remarried caring and involved mother with the mother’s post-marriage absence. How has mom not seen Alex suffering and focused her attention on getting her help? How can she fail to be appalled at Thea’s complete personality change? It just seemed utterly unrealistic for these particular girls to be in such an adult-less life.
Going to have to use spoiler tags in this section. So the guy Alex hooks up with seems like a waaaaay better choice than burnout Joshua. But he does something so utterly strange and kind of cruel that I don’t understand why the reader and Alex are supposed to think he’s this great guy. [Spoiler]: Right after he and Alex hook up, they have an awkward moment and then he informs her that he is leaving that very day for a long trip to Australia. Alex feels somewhat confused and devastated on top of everything else she’s been feeling. But in the final chapter, this guy comes back to basically rescue Alex from her life and reveals that there was never any trip to Australia, but that he is roadtripping to California and wants Alex to come with him. This guy actually makes the lie TWICE. And he’s the good guy? No explanation is ever given for why he lied to Alex and we are supposed to accept him as this knight in shining armor for coming back an inviting Alex on this roadtrip. I guess the author want to add some romantic tension and give Alex some time to think about what she might be missing for not showing this guy that she has feelings for him, but I think this could have been accomplished by this guy saying: “Hey, I’m not going to play games with you. I like you, and you like me. Call me when you are ready to go for it.”
The most difficult thing for me to swallow in this book was the incident that triggered Alex’s downward spiral. It was definitely something humiliating, but it’s hard for me to see her extreme reaction coming out from something like that. I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise by someone more knowledgeable about psychological disorders, but I guess I wish that the Incident had been something a little more recognizably traumatic. I was hoping that the Incident was going to fit in a little bit more with the sisters’ sudden wealth to parallel Thea’s mishandling of their new situation. In some way’s Alex’s Incident was obliquely related to her new status, but as with Hannah in The Opposite of Hallelujah, I wish it had more to do with Alex making an ambiguously moral decision rather than what really happened.