‘Standing on the high school’s lacrosse field in the town I never thought I’d go back to, I wait for my turn to do suicides.’
Why did he think he’d never go back? I’m a huge fan of the tragic back story, so I was flooded with questions when I read this first sentence.
John’s back in the town he swore he’d left for good. After his brother Ryan was injured in an accident that was his fault, John struggled with his anger issues until he was sent away to live with his father and Uncle Dave, but following his girlfriend Leah’s suicide – and a run-in with the law thanks to his tendancy alcohol and his future goals being focused on selling weed in California – he’s been sent home to spend the rest of his senior year with his mother, little sister Livy and the boy he thinks of as New Ryan.
He quickly meets next door neighbour Emily, who seems to be the quintessential good girl based off of how neatly she stacks her textbooks on her passenger seat. John doesn’t want to get involved with anyone – it’s too soon after Leah – but there’s something about Emily that draws him in.
As Ryan gets worse, John struggles to stay sober. He has compulsory drug tests every few weeks to ensure that he hasn’t broken the conditions of his bail, and he doesn’t want to screw up and let his family down once again.
Exploring the way disability impacts every member of the family, we follow John as he comes to terms with his grief over Leah, beginning to move on with his life and make plans for his future, and how he starts to deal with his guilt over Ryan, accepting his part in the events of that fateful day.
I didn’t realise this was a companion novel to ‘The Sister Pact’ until I stumbled over someone’s comment on Goodreads over halfway through the story. That explained my frustration over why Leah’s story wasn’t getting told properly: it’s already been dealt with in another book. It makes ‘The Homecoming’ less satisfying as a standalone, because half of the story isn’t actually told. All we know about Leah is that she killed herself, she had a sister called Allie and she was a fan of ‘Great Expectations’.
But that isn’t the only thing that makes ‘The Homecoming’ struggle to stand on its own two feet. The friendship – and then relationship – between John and Emily is flat, and her insinuated relationship with her cousin isn’t fully explored enough to be emotionally impactful. We know that he’s in trouble but get no real answer as to why, and when she runs off to talk to him and comes back with red puffy eyes, the situation is resolved but doesn’t seem relevant to the bigger picture. Her and John almost have sex but then her parents come home, and after they argue, ingore each other for a couple of weeks and eventually make up he asks her if they’re back together. They never officially got together, so that seemed a little presumptuous – just because a girl wants to sleep with you, doesn’t mean she wants a relationship. I might have felt differently if I’d been familiar with John’s relationship with Leah, but based off of just this story I didn’t feel anything towards their characters.
The other problem is that John’s narrative doesn’t sound masculine. A while had passed between me requesting this title and actually reading it and because the synopsis wasn’t fresh in my mind I read the first few pages genuinely believing this was a girl whose girlfriend had killed themselves, rather than a boy. I know boys do internally ruminate on their feelings, but John’s tendancy to live in the past felt more feminine, further cementing the disonnect that plagued me.
The ending is rushed, and while three quarters of the book are leading up to finding out the reason John blames himself for Ryan’s accident, the reveal only takes a few pages and a conversation that is quickly brushed over. He feels guilty not because Ryan skateboarded away from him into the road, but because he pushed him.
This dramatic reveal is then diminished by the knowledge that Pete was texting while driving, meaning you can blame Ryan’s accident on teen stupidity or sibling rivalry, but the moral of the story seems to be: be careful while driving and if arguing with someone near a road.
I know it’s meant to represent that lots of different factors contribute to accidents, and you can’t pin something to one specific cause, but it muddles and it feels like the boys are trying to outdo each other: “Oh, it’s nice that you pushed him into the road, but I was texting!”.
I did appreciate the fact that Ryan wasn’t born with his disability, making it possible for the book to explore the impact on his family and how they came to terms that he had been fundamentally changed. I’ve seen disabilities represented in YA before, but not like this (or, at least, not that I can remember being written as effectively as this story). The frank discussion regarding different types of treatment and the possibility of moving Ryan into a more suitable environment were thought-provoking and well-researched, free of a judgmental attitude towards Ryan’s mother for requiring more professional help for her son.
If the story had been more focused on Ryan, rather than trying to deal with John’s grief, blame and struggle with drugs and alcohol, I think I would have enjoyed it much more – instead it felt like a smorgasbord of teenage issues that weren’t completely or satisfyingly tackled.
I haven’t read ‘The Sister Pact’ yet, so can’t definitely say if I would recommend reading that title first, but if you like having as much of a character’s back story as you can that’ll be a good place to start. I really enjoyed Stacie Ramey’s writing and her willingness to tackle emotionally involving topics, even if I did think the relationship between John and Emily was a little undeveloped.
If you like contemporaries that aren’t afraid to deal with hard-hitting subjects, ‘The Homecoming’ is the book for you.