Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hold Still, by Nina LaCour

In the aftermath of her best friend Ingrid's suicide, Caitlin feels aimless, drifting through her junior year. A new friend Dylan and a new boyfriend Jayson cannot erase the missing presence of her friend. Over the course of a year, this book traces Caitlin's grieving process and coming to terms. When Caitlin discovers the dead girl's journal under her own bed and she starts to read it, she learns lots about her friend that she didn't know before.

There are plenty of books about grieving and loss in the YA cannon. And more than a few of them have come out in the last year. This one, however, really stands out from the pack for several reasons.

LaCour is a formidable writing presence. The great challenge with writing a book like this is keeping the pace moving. It is far too easy to fall into navel gazing and melancholy. And it is similarly easy to pull out the stops and go for melodrama in an attempt to avoid the lethargy. LaCour achieves the perfect balance, never letter Caitlin become a whimpering helpless mess yet not resorting to extreme (and uncharacteristic) emotions. Instead, we get a beautifully-written story about coping.

As usual, what I really keyed in on was the way that everyone in this book is imperfect, neither evil nor good. The photography teacher Ms. Delani is probably one of the more complex teachers to grace a teen book in some years (and she could have been so evil in the hands of a lesser writer). Ingrid's parents, introduced quite late in the book, are breathtakingly fragile. Pride in place, however, goes to Caitlin's lesbian friend Dylan who never falls into the stereotype that you would expect from the new-kid-at-school (neither that nor her sexual orientation ever become a real issue in this story - although some school-based homophobia is briefly hinted at). I love the way that Dylan's friendship not only supports Caitlin, but also feeds certain key elements of the plot.

And that brings me to another strong point in this story: LaCour's ability to bring it all together. In a novel with a lot of characters and a fair number of subplots (a closed movie theater scheduled to be demolished, romance, struggle with art, the journal, building a tree house), it is always a notable event when the author manages to tie all of the elements together without forcing them. The result is you leave this book never feeling that your time was wasted. Every page is truly important to the story. Remarkable!

So, even if the topic of death and grieving may be old hat, this novel will rank as one of the very best attempts to do it.

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