It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these – I know I was meant to produce a lengthy series of reviews for books I had been reading en masse for the past however long, but then things happened, including my own writing taking me over. That’s still going on, and I hope to keep you updated on whether I’m nearing the stage of getting my work out there, or, on the other end of the spectrum, am nearing the stage of denouncing it from the rooftops.
Either way, I feel it’s worth writing a particular review for my most recent read. Firstly, because of just how exceptional it is, and secondly, because I was recommending it on Twitter, and after corresponding with the author herself, feel I owe her to actually do this thing properly. So…hi, Nina, if you’re reading…hope you like this review. The pressure’s on a little bit more than with previous reviews, what with the author watching, but hey, it’s still my blog – and it’s not as if I’ve got much negative to comment on.
So – We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Not my first exposure to her work. I had previously read You Know Me Well, a collaborative novel between her and David Levithan, and Hold Still, her debut novel. Both I enjoyed, but my appreciation for her writing and recognition of it’s consistent good points reached their zenith in this particular work, and has probably now earned its place as one of my favourite books outright, although given how long my reading list still is, who knows how many favourites I’ll end up having…
So, what’s the story? Well, to be honest, it’s kind of difficult to summarize, and I felt that the blurb, when I first read it, didn’t reveal too much either. The story is narrated by Marin, a young woman who has recently started attending college (or uni, as we Brits might facetiously say) in New York, about as far away from her home in California as you can get. And this is quite deliberate – she feels the need to distance herself from what went on in the days leading up to her departure, to the point that she’s not contacted anyone from her old life for ages. Eventually, her best friend Mabel (who has recently been a bit more than a friend to her), comes to visit, admittedly upon invitation, to spend a few days with her during the Christmas holidays, whilst Mabel is otherwise completely alone at the college dormitories, and upon arriving, is, as you’ll imagine, quite curious to know what exactly happened, which slowly gets revealed to the reader via backstory.
One of the most immediately noticeable strengths about this book (and in fact, a consistent factor in all of LaCour’s books) is how well realized the characters are. I have rambled at length about how much I love characters before, and tend to get annoyed when they seem more like stereotypes, archetypes or tools rather than actual human beings. The author manages to avoid this trap however – even though a good chunk of the consists of just Marin and Mabel interacting with each other, every second of it speaks volumes about them, feels so organic, genuinely makes me think that these are two existing people with a convoluted and not fully worked out relationship to each other. One scene that really makes this stand out is near the beginning, where the two of them are having a conversation in an elevator (or, lift, as we boring Brits say), where the topic of discussion is naturally drawn to Marin’s disappearing act. Both characters manage to convey several emotions at once during this discussion – Marin manages to be both defensive of her decision, whilst simultaneously being guilty and trying to avoid upsetting Mabel even more. Mable, which for her part is even more impressive by not being a POV character, manages to display a subtle anger and hurt and Marin’s decision and radio silence, whilst also feeling joyous at their reunion, and I’m possibly detecting a bit of guilt there too, due to recent events in her life which makes the brewing romance she and Marin had previously now not possible. All of this just a few pages – that is some top quality character-crafting there. This kind of attention to detail can also be seen in LaCour’s minor characters. This is probably shown more in her other books, with a lot more characters to work with, but even here, it can detected. You don’t just know the names of background characters, you know their dog’s name too, their family life, their hobbies. No character is neglected, whether you like them or not, and in this book, I’m sure I do.
The degree by which the major characters’ focus is developed is immensely impressive too – the reminiscing done by Marin and Mabel is just delightful, for lack of a better word. You simply don’t need to be told how close they are, because it’s evident, not just in Mabel flying 3,000 odd miles to reunite with Marin, but simply by how their conversations flowed in spite of the awkwardness that grew between them. Dissections of literary techniques, existential musings, all of these come naturally to the two of them, and it’s just perfect. These are definitely conversations I can see myself wanting to read frequently.
The connection gets even more personal for me, when I reflect on that I decided, halfway through reading, that Marin probably has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, having recognised a lot of her habits and thought processes in myself, particularly in how her concerns and worries tend to develop and worsen until death is considered a likely outcome, and also how later the worries become darker, and more closely related to her doubting the commitment the people important to her actually have, particularly her grandfather. Oh yeah, probably should have mentioned him…well, keep an eye on him, because he’s pivotal. Perhaps what hit closest to home though was how Marin manages to keep her anxieties under control by having the familiar and mundane recited or presented to her – when her roommate Hannah was there, it was the discussion of her biology course that gave her some comfort. With Mabel, it’s talking about her life, no doubt playing into the nostalgia factor, something that I know I find comforting. Rewatching episodes of TV shows or films that I’ve watched plenty of times before is a key way I relieve my anxiety, to the point that’s it become part of the process.
If I’m allowed to interpret, I’d argue that the main themes of this book are loneliness and the fear of simply not belonging, which becomes more apparent in Marin the more you read on, and seems quite cemented as its central theme by the end. And again, it’s something I know all too well, everything from avoiding the unknown and emotionally painful, to undue guilty, to unrequited love, and something that can be eased with just some of the simplest actions from people you care about which you nevertheless realize was quite an undertaking on their part, done simply for you. Many of us will feel lonely, anxious about our place in the world, and sometimes betrayed very often, and recovery is not always straightforward. But if you have a Mabel in your life, definitely hold onto them.
Do I have any criticisms? Honestly, very little stood out to me as worth criticizing. Even though a good half of the book is told in flashback, explaining how Marin got to where she did, a narrative technique I can easily get tired of, it’s perfectly easy to follow and serves the story well. It helps, I guess, that neither story, either the flashback one, or the one of Marin and Mabel in New York, is boring. In a less talented author’s hands, they could easily have been.
If I were to pick one thing, I’d say the ending seems a little off compared to the rest of the book. Endings are difficult, I know, and for spoiler-related reasons, I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll summarize in saying certain things about it seem a little abrupt, and somewhat different in tone to everything else, and perhaps I’m just saying that because I would have been happy for the book to be many times longer, but who knows.
Point is, this is a brilliant book – I’d highly recommend it to anyone, and it has encouraged me to read LaCour’s other books that I haven’t yet. Nina, I’m quite jealous of your talents, but you do deserve this praise.