“You know what’s great? After this, there’s nothing. Isn’t that great? I’m not even being sarcastic. I’ve been looking for ghosts and spirits for years, and it finally hit me. There aren’t any. When we die, this is all over.”
It’s been five years since Jaycee’s brother, Jake, died in a horrific accident on his graduation night. On the night of Jaycee’s graduation, she goes to the playground where he died, climbing to the top of the swings and deciding to backflip off of them – the same move Jake was performing when he broke his neck.
Natalie is driving her boyfriend, Zach, and his best friend, Bishop, from one graduation party to the next. Zach is already pretty drunk and he’s getting on her nerves – she knows they’re going to be breaking up before she leaves for Cornell, but she doesn’t want to be alone all summer – and Bishop is in the back seat moping because he’s recently had his heart broken. When she drives past the playground and spots Jaycee at the top of the swings, she stops the car and tries to stop her from jumping: Natalie and Jaycee were best friends until the night of Jake’s death.
Jaycee falls on her ass, and while her pride is injured she doesn’t really care what any of them think of her. Jaycee Strangelove has been the freak of the school since Jake died, so why should that change? She tells them she’s going to explore the Ridges – the abandoned mental hospital that sits at the top of the hill watching over Athens – because it was one of Jake’s favourite places in the world, and when Natalie insists on following her it changes the course of the summer for all of them.
At the Ridges, they bump into Mikivikious, Jake’s childhood best friend. Jaycee and him have been meeting at the Ridges every year on Jake’s anniversary, the only night they see each other every year, and with his selective muteness he’s one of the only people who doesn’t ask Jaycee about her feelings. When they decide to explore the roof, they find a message from Jake – it turns out he went urbexing (urban exploring) a lot in the year before his death, leaving symbols and signatures in all of the crazy places he found. Jaycee finds his map and decides to follow him on his journey to feel closer to him, hoping to get closure for once and for all.
I’ve read a lot of YA novels revolving around death and grief, but this is easily among the most realistic. It’s been five years and Jaycee is still drowning in the death of her brother, which is the first thing that struck me. Sometimes it’s the year anniversary and a character is completely over it, sometimes it’s literally a couple of weeks and their friends are telling them to get past it and go party. It was brilliant to have a character that wasn’t pretending to be okay or forcing herself past her grief prematurely: Jaycee is honest with everyone, aggressively so, but she knows herself and doesn’t need to pretend to be anyone else. It also deals with Jaycee’s parents grief. Too often the parents in YA are completely invisible, but in a situation such as this it would have been a disservice not to tackle how they were coping.
I also thought it was a great choice to give Natalie a form of PTSD – she sees Jake die, and from that night she struggles with OCD and constant panic attacks. The event doesn’t just effect his relatives, it effects all of the characters, and if you saw an accident that horrendous it definitely would do something to you psychologically. Even Zach’s brother Tyler – who is one of the minor characters in the novel – is altered by his friends death, even if he pretends otherwise.
The juxtaposition between Zach and Tyler is one of the most well-written brotherly relationships I’ve encountered. Tyler is the stereotypical frat boy, sleeping around and taking pictures of all of his conquests to share with all of his friends. Meanwhile, Zach is in touch with his emotions and is unafraid to show his vulnerability: he cries at multiple points, ponders his relationship with Natalie and worries about the future. I love genuine male characters but they’re so often caricatured and overly stereotypical – having a teenage boy that shows weakness is something that will always appeal to me, because it’s still a rather rare occurrence.
This novel is written in multiple viewpoints: primarily using Jaycee, Natalie and Zach, but with sections for Bishop and Mik. Something that works particularly well is the difference in medium for Bishop and Mik’s sections: Bishop is an artist, so his sections are only told through the artwork he leaves at the sites they visit, while Mik’s chapters are told in comic format. I’ve never read a book that could switch so effortlessly from formats, particularly from novel to comic, but it’s something I’d certainly like to see more of in the future: it kept the story interesting and showed the characters in action rather than purely describing all of their adventures.
The conflict between the past and the future, childhood and adult, is also tackled very interestingly. Natalie is always looking forward to leaving, going to Cornell, breaking up with Zach – she can’t wait for the summer to be over so she can move on. On the other hand, Jaycee wants to go back to her childhood to relive her memories with Jake and get her brother back: hanging out with Natalie, Mik and Jake was so much simpler, and it takes her a long time to feel able to look forward without longing for the past. It touches upon a struggle that we all face, when our childhood memories start slipping away and our futures are still a mystery: it’s a difficult place to be in, and it was good to see a well-rounded and authentic character dealing with the same difficulties.
I was a bit nervous about ‘You Were Here’, because it could easily have become a standard, repetitive book about the struggle of losing a brother and trying to find yourself, but Cori McCarthy has written something truly emotional. It has a romance woven throughout, but Jaycee doesn’t rely on being saved by someone; she needs to save herself so that she can move on, and that’s something that definitely needs to be included in more novels. There’s no damsel in distress here, even though Jaycee is in an awful place at the start of the book – her friends and her inner strength are all she needs to pull herself through. I cared for all of the characters and thought that all of their personalities, worries and thoughts were completely separate from each other – they’re all very strong, and they’re all necessary to the plot (even Bishop, who does fade into the background at points when he’s absorbed in his artwork).
If you’re looking to read a book about loss and grief that genuinely deals with struggle and emotion, I couldn’t recommend this one more strongly.