By Katy Goodwin-Bates
You’re still alive in alternate universes, Theo, but I live in the real world, where this morning you’re having an open-casket funeral. I know you’re out there, listening. And you should know I’m really pissed because you swore you would never die and yet here we are. It hurts even more because this isn’t the first promise you’ve broken.
Thus begin’s Adam Silvera’s second novel, History is All You Left Me, in which sixteen year old Griffin grieves the loss of the love of his life, Theo, while trying to manage his obsessive-compulsive anxiety. Of course, Theo was actually Griffin’s ex-boyfriend, having moved from their native New York to California and met Jason, who held the exalted position of ‘Theo’s boyfriend’ when the tragedy happened. The tension between Theo and Jason soon mutates into something far more complicated.
History is All You Left Me has been getting rave reviews since its release earlier this month, and I’m not surprised. It certainly fits neatly into that category of YA fiction that includes Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes and a whole slew of other books which are almost guaranteed to cause their readers to reach for tissues, a comforting hot drink and some emotional support. Griffin’s sadness is almost unbearable to begin with; I have read a book or two before, so I was automatically on alert for signs that this was a manifestation of some feeling of guilt and, by jove, I was right, but I won’t spoil the book by spelling it out. Silvera’s representation of boys as complex emotional beings is really refreshing; while The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry is a great song, it’s a terrible indictment of masculine ideals, and History is in possession of a number of genuinely emotive scenes in which boys do, in fact, leak from the eyes.
I’ve mentioned before that YA novels often make me feel old and this is one to add to that list, as I found myself siding with the parents as they encouraged Griffin to seek professional help for his grief and compulsions. I also applied my special form of psychology (the kind for which being a parent and having eyes are the only criteria) to Griffin’s downward emotional spiral. Because, yes, History is All You Left Me is a book about grief, but it’s also very overtly one about obsession and obsessive relationships, of the type which are commonplace with highly hormoned teenagers, but also something a little deeper. My parental alarm bells rang to the point of giving me a migraine throughout; for example, even though Griffin breaks up with Theo (not a spoiler – this is mentioned in the first chapter), he still frequently seeks reassurance that the pair of them are “endgame.” Theo assumes control over who is allowed to refer to Griffin as “Griff.” I often experience an urge to jump inside a book, like Mary Poppins with a chalk picture, and intervene in the characters’ lives, and I maintain that Griffin was very much in need of a firm talking-to.
It’s going to sound stupid, and I wouldn’t ever say this out loud, but the way Theo and I came out to each other was sort of like getting caught in a thunderstorm. Storms suck when they’re knocking out power and ripping apart houses, no doubt. But other times the thunder is a soundtrack to something unpredictable, something that gets our hearts racing and wakes us up. If someone had warned me about the weather, I might have freaked out and stayed inside.
But I didn’t.
Tell me this isn’t someone in dire need of an intervention.
None of this is a criticism; teenage relationships are intense and melodramatic and occasionally dangerous. Silvera’s portrayal of one of these relationships is on point and, as a result, I have no doubt that, when my teenage students read it, they’re all going to cry and say “oh, Griffin” (not Griff, obviously) while rocking gently. The point of books in this genre is to inspire a cathartic response; they’re the 21st century’s Shakespearean tragedies, and History is All You Left Me is a bruisingly effective addition to the field.