History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Soho Teen, Jan 2017
Reviewed from hardcover
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen, Sept 2017
Reviewed from ARC
Adam Silvera has not one but two eligible YA books out this year. Both feature queer cis male characters, both deal with death and life in the face of it, both have received numerous starred reviews, both are well worth discussing. And I’m tackling both in one post for the sake of expediency.
If I were evaluating books solely on the strength of the emotional response they elicit from me, History Is All You Left Me would be up there among the best. Everything about this book is designed to feel like a punch in the heart. Chapters alternate between two timelines: “Today,” which begins the day of the funeral of Griffin’s ex-boyfriend Theo and follows Griffin’s grieving process, and “History,” which spans the two years prior to Theo’s death, detailing how their romantic relationship developed and fell apart, and what came after. Written in direct address to Theo, “Today” hints at all the things that went wrong before we see them play out in “History.” This structure works brilliantly to build up the sense of bittersweet regret that informs Griffin’s perspective and allows Silvera to withhold details until just the right point for the most devastating impact.
I was impressed by the amount of detail about Griffin and Theo that was woven into the narrative. It made it easy to believe that they have full, complete lives and the weighty personal history that the narrative relies on. Over the course of the novel, we get to know Griffin well. The first-person perspective doesn’t mask how resentful, possessive, and self-destructive he is, and yet, there’s enough about him that’s sympathetic that it’s easy to hope he’ll work through his significant problems. Silvera gets the voice just right: the earnest emotions layered over with bitterness, a mix of self-deprecation and self-righteousness. For such an intense narrative, it has some great moments of humor, too.
History centers some really unhealthy relationships, but does so for the sake of illuminating their toxicity. By reflecting on his partnership with Theo, who’s something of a manic pixie dream boy, Griffin comes to grips with the problems that plagued them. He also comes to recognize his fraught relationship with Theo’s boyfriend Jackson as another form of self-sabotage, rather than the helpful coping mechanism he wants to pretend it is. By the end of the narrative, Griffin gains a clearer understanding of what it might take for a relationship work.
The depiction of mental health issues in this narrative is commendable, too. In addition to dealing with grief, Griffin is also dealing with OCD. His compulsions are specific and avoid caricature. OCD isn’t presented as a quirky personality trait, but rather as a real, debilitating problem that can be exacerbated by triggering stressors. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this is a thoughtful #ownvoices portrayal at work.
History is, in my opinion, the more powerful of the two books, but They Both Die at the End has its own laudable qualities, especially in terms of representation.
A love story between two queer men of color is always a wonderful thing to encounter in a narrative. Here, main characters Mateo and Rufus are Puerto Rican and Cuban American respectively. The two have different degrees of comfort and experience with their sexuality, and that’s portrayed as completely okay. Mateo chooses not to label his sexuality and notes that “sex with an actual person scares [him]” (6). Rufus is openly bi, attracted to both men and women on the page, and accepted by his friends. (This is a far more positive representation of bisexuality than in History, where Theo comes out to Griffin as bi, and Griffin’s uninterrogated response is to bristle at having “more competition” for Theo. Ugh.) There are also diverse family structures: Mateo’s been living with a single dad, while Rufus has his own found family in the group home where he lives.
They Both Die is speculative fiction that’s driven by a premise, and the premise here is outlandish and also, perhaps, a bit trite: what if everyone were informed at the beginning of the day they’ll die that this is it, their last day on earth? Silvera is far more interested in getting into the “and then what?” than explaining the “how?” in this case. The “how” gets chalked up to the mysterious work of a large corporate entity, and okay, we all know corporations have way too much power and do all kinds of things that shouldn’t be possible, I suppose. The “and then what” plays out most persuasively in the way Silvera imagines social media developing. There are virtual feeds of “Deckers” living out their final day, an icky Necro app for hooking up with the soon-to-die, and the Last Friend meet-up app through which Mateo and Rufus find each other. This aspect was inventive and convincing.
The resulting story follows a familiar pattern: two people meet by chance in New York City and fall in love, despite knowing they don’t have much time together. The doomed lovers’ alternating points of view carry the story, with the occasional distantly related third-person POV interspersed to broaden the scope of the story and suggest interconnectedness.
Though the novel’s thematic emphasis on the importance of living boldly can feel heavy-handed, there is more here than a seize-the-day montage of teens living out their dying wishes. Mateo and Rufus find that they can’t just go out in a blaze of glory: they still have the messy complications of relationships and the pieces of their day-to-day lives that continue to follow them. It’s this messiness that keeps the driving sentiment of the story from falling flat.
Despite my admiration for significant aspects of both books, I hesitate when it comes to recommending them for the award. These aren’t happy stories. In fact, being painfully unhappy is what they do best. History begins with a death and depicts the dissolution of multiple queer relationships. In They Both Die at the End…. well, spoiler: that title’s no joke. There’s evidence in the text that Silvera is aware of the “Bury Your Gays” trope; Mateo explains to Rufus that they aren’t destined to die because they’re gay (345). But addressing this trope head-on doesn’t change the fact that the novel reiterates it.
There have been so many calls from within the LGBTQIA+ community for narratives that represent functional relationships and happy endings, rather than stories of queer suffering. Award-winning books have to carry a lot of symbolic meaning, and I can’t help but think that if I were on the committee, I’d want to honor a book in which profundity and revelation don’t rely on the death of queer characters.