I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.When We Collided by Emery Lord
Also by this author: The Start of Me and You, The Names They Gave Us
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 5th 2016
Genres: Coming of Age, Contemporary, Depression & Mental Illness, Family & Relationships, Young Adult
Pages: 352 •Format: ARC •Source: ALA
We are seventeen and shattered and still dancing. We have messy, throbbing hearts, and we are stronger than anyone could ever know…
Jonah never thought a girl like Vivi would come along.
Vivi didn’t know Jonah would light up her world.
Neither of them expected a summer like this…a summer that would rewrite their futures.
In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and forces beyond our control, two teens find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it will change you forever.
I found myself lucky enough to acquire a copy of When We Collided last summer at ALA, when I chatted with a lovely Bloomsbury representative who recommended it when I told her I was interested in heavier contemporaries. I had of course heard Emery Lord’s name due to the success of her first two YA novels, but I hadn’t had a chance to read her work yet. I decided I wanted to go in blind and have my ARC of When We Collided be my first experience with Lord’s work, so I wouldn’t have any preconceived notions or expectations about a book that deals with topics, such as mental illness and grief, that generally need a very nuanced approach.
*Please note that this review will reference the mental illness that afflicts one of the characters in the books. It is revealed partway through the novel, and talking about it is essential to providing a comprehensive review of the story.
When We Collided was not the book I was expecting. I’ve read my fair share of YA contemporaries that take on grief and mental illness, and while some have surely been executed well, none have truly made me feel as though I was IN the mind of one dealing with such an affliction, nor have I ever seen the grief and struggles of those who have a loved one dealing with a mental disorder portrayed so effectively. The cover is a great representation of how the story felt: rushed and sort of manic but with such beauty in its scenery and relationships that it made up for the imperfections, for the most part.
When We Collided is told in dual perspectives by the two main characters, Jonah and Vivi. Jonah is dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death, drowning in the responsibility of trying to raise three younger siblings while his mother is catatonic with grief, and rarely has time to unpack his own feelings about his father’s death. He’s responsible, patient, and most of all dedicated, and pretty much the perfect book boyfriend- kind, considerate, respectful, and warmly and fully human (in that wonderful way that just restores your faith in humanity through the common decency you so rarely seem to find in people these days). Vivi is Jonah’s opposite in pretty much every way, and is as bright and erratic as the haphazard paint stripes of the cover of the book. Vivi suffers from manic-depressive bipolar disorder, and while she brings great joy into the lives of many people in the small, seaside town that the novel is set in, her impulsive and sometimes downright selfish behavior hurts a lot of people, including herself.
I don’t claim to be an expert in any way, shape, or form on mental illness, but I did appreciate that Emery Lord chose to portray one of her characters with a mental illness that’s not as commonly depicted in YA novels (Schizophrenia, depression, and PTSD are ones that seem to appear more frequently in YA books, though mental illness as a whole is very underrepresented in the genre). The manic/depressive scenes were well done, especially toward the end of the novel, where reading Vivi’s chapters felt like constantly hovering on the precipice of disaster. Almost as powerful as Vivi’s erratic behavior due to her condition was seeing how Jonah was impacted by being close with multiple people who suffered from mental illness, and the toll it takes on those close to someone dealing with a disorder. The dual perspective was one I appreciated, and it felt like a well-rounded depiction of bipolar disorder, in the sense that it covered both the afflicted persons and the relationships that the disorder touched.
However, there were times where it felt like Vivi’s bipolar disorder felt like it was used a bit as a crutch for her character to act extremely immaturely and sometimes rather cruel. She constantly prioritizes herself over Jonah, and whenever he calls her out on it she falls back onto the same excuse- that she’s “living life to the fullest” and “wont’ suppress or dull any of her emotions” and that her “creativity can’t be contained and she’s not going to apologize for who she is” (not exact quotes- I’m paraphrasing). Many of these statements tend to be made in her manic states, but I think it’s quite possible that while Vivi is someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, she was also just an inherently selfish character. As the book progressed I really found myself liking her less and less, and felt that her inappropriate behavior really could’ve been dealt with or addressed a little more (such as her crazy possessiveness of Jonah and her verbally abusing him for even so much as talking to a female, even a longtime family friend). I feel it does a disservice to readers to insinuate that Vivi’s immaturity and personality flaws are all tied back to her diagnosis.
Jonah, on the other hand, is one of the best things to happen to contemporary YA in a long, long time. Aside from all of the wonderful qualities I’ve already discussed, he channels his grief and anger at his family situation into something creative rather than destructive: cooking. His father was a chef and the passion for food runs deep within Jonah, and cooking plays a large role in the story, particularly as a healing mechanism. As someone who loves food and spends perhaps too much time watching Food Network, I loved how food was shown not just as a hobby (which is unique in and of itself in YA, as I don’t think I’ve read of any YA characters who are aspiring chefs) but as a cathartic act that served as a constructive method for Jonah to simultaneously feel closer to his father while working out his feelings, and also strengthening his bonds with others, whether it be by making his siblings their favorite meals or trying to reach out to his mother by bringing her meals.
In some ways this novel was like watching a train wreck, as Vivi’s downward spiral was inevitable and I couldn’t stand watching how horribly she treated Jonah. Yet I was also was compelled by the messy dynamics and inevitable disaster. While I didn’t like Vivi, I appreciated how vivid her character was written, and how her and Jonah really balanced each other in the orbit of the story. I always harbor respect for an author when I can rate a book highly based on writing quality and overall themes even when characters or plot happenings don’t agree with me.
Overall: When We Collided isn’t a perfect book, but it revels in its imperfections and portrays mental illness in a very vivid way that compels the reader and makes them empathize with the characters in a very personal manner. It doesn’t become singly focused on the afflicted, but also gives weight to the grief and struggle of the loved ones of those suffering with disorders too, which is one of the main reasons this book stood out to me. Lord also differentiates her novel by giving her characters unique creative outlets for their emotional baggage, which make them feel more well rounded than characters in contemporary stand alone novels usually do. While there are some things I would’ve preferred to have seen executed differently (particularly regarding responsibility and agency of personal actions), I think it’s an incredibly well written book with many stunning scenes.
I’m curious to know- have you read any other books that deal with bipolar disorder? If so, how does When We Collided stack up?
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Goodreads Challenge 2016