Released: January 28th, 2014
Rating: 4.5 stars
Word Rating: Subtle, understated and beautiful.
Reviewed by: Ellis
When high school senior Paul Wagoner walks into his school library with a stolen gun, he threatens his girlfriend Emily Beam, then takes his own life. In the wake of the tragedy, an angry and guilt-ridden Emily is shipped off to boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she encounters a ghostly presence who shares her name. The spirit of Emily Dickinson and two quirky girls offer helping hands, but it is up to Emily to heal her own damaged self.
This inventive story, told in verse and in prose, paints the aftermath of tragedy as a landscape where there is good behind the bad, hope inside the despair, and springtime under the snow.
"So. You're a poet." Emily shakes her head. "No," she says, "I'm just a girl who writes poems." **
It's weird for me to think of And We Stay as the story of an ex-cheerleader who starts afresh at an all-girls boarding school after her jock boyfriend shot himself in the school library, but that is the gist of Emily Beam's situation. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those elements, but they make the story seem flashier than it actually is, and flashy is one word I wouldn't associate with And We Stay. To me, the overall atmosphere is very subtle and understated, and quite beautiful in its sadness.
I think part of that has to do with the perspective this book was written in. Many have mentioned that the third person POV is what kept them from fully sympathising with Emily. I agree that it creates a sort of barrier between her and the reader. I'll be honest. I struggled with the first chapters. Somehow I expected this story to be written in first person, and when I couldn't adapt to the fact it wasn't, I decided to start over again. The weird - and good - thing is that the POV did work for me the second time around. I don't know. Maybe it won't be a problem once you're warned or fully prepared or something.
I also think that this distancing effect was intentional, but actually more so for Emily's benefit than the reader's. It is a recurring theme throughout the novel that Emily wants to alienate herself from what happened. She tries to imagine herself in the janitor's shoes and wonders what he feels, instead of dealing with her own feelings. In another attempt to not be confronted with what happened, she starts referring to the library as the lieberry. Whenever Paul's sister tries to contact her, she lies that she can't come to the phone, because she just doesn't want to deal with this.
It's not that Emily doesn't want to be alone. It's that she wants all of it to be over. She feels so much guilt over what happened. Small parts of her backstory are revealed one at a time, and while I'd predicted some of them, they were still heartbreaking. I think Paul was more in love with her than she was with him, or at least he emoted his feelings better, albeit sometimes in rather disturbing ways. I also don't think Emily is someone who does feelings well, but it isn't entirely clear whether that's part of her character or a consequence of what happened in the library.
With all that, it might seem contradictory of me to say, but this felt like a very personal book for me. You can see Emily's struggle and the way she tries to channel it into her poetry. She sometimes drops major bombshells in the middle of another thought but it is done is such a natural way that it doesn't make the narrative seem disjointed. I can't entirely put my finger on Emily. She still needs to find her voice and that's not something that's resolved in the timeframe of this novel. The result is that I felt very fragile while reading And We Stay. If you know me, you also know that's not something that happens very often.
One of the definite strong points of And We Stay is the writing. Most of it is told in prose, with Emily's poetry closing out each chapter, but even the prose has a poetic quality to it. This story flows. It meanders between memory and reality, past and present, but not in an annoying or distracting way. It's a little stream of consciousness in places, but controlled in such a manner that it works and doesn't cloud the main narrative. Even though Emily lies a lot to the people that want to help her, there's a sincerity to her voice that make the book extremely quotable.
To be honest, I like that Emily lies so much. She's trying to push people away, but the great thing is that they're not letting her. She gradually (re-)learns to let people in and tentatively makes new friends. They make for some light and humorous moments. I don't think she has complete closure by the end, but I also don't think that's the point. There's a melancholic tone to And We Stay that might not work for everyone, but I loved it. I've been waiting for this book for almost two years. Personally, I think it's better than Hubbard's debut. While Paper Covers Rock is certainly impressive, especially as a debut, there's a sincerity to And We Stay that makes it even stronger. It's definitely a favourite.
** Quotes are taken from the ARC and not checked against the finished version, but believe me, they will.