title: And We Stay
author: Jenny Hubbard
format: Kindle ARC
buy it: Amazon Goodreads B&N
rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 6/10 [all books I’ve ever read].
recommended for: Fans of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, anything John Green, and Emily Dickinson herself.
My Ratings Explained
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.
the basicsIt's no mistake you're seeing this book on more blogs and lists. It's a compelling mix of narrative and poetry that snuck up on me. A quarter of the way through, I was ready to give it a three. At a third, I was beginning to waver. You can see where I ended up. The slow beginning, for me, was a combination of style and character. I took a minute to warm up to Emily and her voice, perhaps because the beginning jumps liberally between Emily-now and Emily-then. It makes Emily-of-any-time-point difficult to get a handle on. Once her focus turned more to the present, I was more drawn into her world. The past became a lens of viewing the present instead of a block between me and her voice. That voice is trite or melodramatic at times, but is otherwise imaginative, lyrical, and captivatingly emotive. Emily's is a world inside her head slowly turning outward. Her poetry shows the early stabbings of youth with a maturity that comes from experiencing great pain. It also adds a layer of extra emotional power to an already poignant story. I'll remember and come back to Emily's poems, and though I may not reread her story, the feeling will stay.
plot . 4/5The plot creaks off to a clumsy start. Perhaps this is a matter of preference for me, but I don't like a lot of quick back-and-forth between past and present. It's a very Victorian feature that depends heavily on compelling prose, and I just wasn't compelled enough when I started this book. Instead of getting the chance to settle with Emily in her new Amherst boarding school, I felt jerked between that present and her tidbits of what happened with Paul. Maybe the flashbacks could have come later, or been shorter, or something. It makes for a very retrospective, languishing start.
I really became invested when the focus turned more to Emily's life at Amherst, with K.T. and Amber. More of this throughout would have made for a more coherent story. I enjoy the boarding-school drama. The compassionate Madame Colche. Emily's exploration of Emily Dickinson. The nervous friendship between K.T. and Emily. I would have loved to know Amber more, because what little we get of her is quirky and pushes Emily's comfort zone. It's not that the second half is filled with action; instead, the past and present become integrated more fluidly. We learn the deeper parts of what happened with Paul, the library, and the gun, and come to know Emily through her recollections. The ending is abrupt, too much so, but at least leaves off with hopeful uncertainty.
Also, don't get excited about ghost stories. The "ghostly presence" is much more metaphor than supernatural reality.
concept . 5/5Poetry gives this book a different lens than similar works. The story of a girl starting over, a girl with a dark past and a dead boyfriend, isn't new. Hubbard simply tells it in a new way. Emily's experience of (and to her, role in) Paul's suicide is told as much through her poetic imagery as it is through her direct discussion of what happened. It's the best of Ellen Hopkins and Laurie Halse Anderson in one narrative structure. You get the quiet atmosphere and the clever lyricism, although Hubbard's poetry is much more Dickinson than slam. Which worked wonders for me. It's also a very tangible way of showing the things that Emily is too afraid to say.
characters . 5/5Emily was a prickly character at first. I found her to be distant, self-absorbed. I think this was partially because the excess of past-narration in the first part of the story made her distant. When she came back to the present, her character became clearer and more sympathetic. I was able to appreciate her somberness, her quietness, her hidden streak of ferocity. I did want to smack her when she first met Amber and was so judgey about it, but it's a flaw I forgot, if not forgave. Her juxtaposition with K.T. is perfect. K.T. is loud and seemingly outgoing, but no less insecure. You learn that Emily is her closest and nearly only friend. At times, I liked her more than Emily. In the end, she brought back Emily's humanity and spark. Amber was a wasted character, arrived too late. I would have loved more of her quirks. Another key player was Paul. He's dead on page one, but we come to know him and his stormy personality through Emily's flashbacks. He's complex, which gives Emily some vicarious complexity.
style . 4/5You may be surprised to find a four here, given my gushing about the narrative form. This is true, but it wasn't always as strong as I could have hoped. There were many times where the writing style felt clunky or unrealistic. The dialogue caught a few groans and there were descriptions that just felt "too much." Also, I love third person, but there's no reason to refer constantly to your narrator by both her names--except to annoy your readers. What I did like was the obvious poetic atmosphere. Emily's love of poetry comes through in the way she describes and takes in her world, giving her voice clarity. Her poems are also beautiful, but not too polished. They're believable as the poems of a precocious high schooler. They're also concrete and expressionistic, too qualities I favor in the poetry I enjoy.
mechanics . 4/5Like a road with several branches unexplored, this book meanders from path to path and doesn't always find a clear exit. The beginning is slow and some of the middle is too unexplored--like the "trip" to Chicago or the mystery of the Dickinson house. Details that would have been fully realized with more page time. The pacing definitely improves after the first bit of text, but I could see a reader giving up and never reaching the good parts.
take home messageA beautiful drama about the powers of self-expression in making sense of a tragic world.
Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review. The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.