Genre: Young Adult, Realism
I’ve just got in from spending the day with my long term best friend – Inkyspells. We went to uni together and haven’t had a catch-up for a good long while, and inevitably we ended up in a bookshop. Amy always leaves me in a great mood and I always feel a bit inspired and have the want to do something productive that I love once I’ve seen her, so I couldn’t wait to get in and write this book review!
Not everyone has to be the chosen one
What if you were Mikey? And just want to graduate and go to prom before someone blows up the high school again?
Patrick Ness’s bold and original novel shows how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and that there are many different types of remarkable.
It’s no secret that Ness is one of my all-time favourite authors. I started with More Than This and cried my way through the Chaos Walking trilogy because I simply adored his characters, the plotline and the worlds that Ness creates. I’ve always found myself instantly invested in his work, and The Rest of Us Just Live Here was no different.
We’re introduced to Mikey, a normal teenage boy, around 17 years old, and his group of friends in their small town in the middle of nowhere. They’re finishing off high school and preparing to sit their finals. Mikey and his best friend Jared have their future colleges sorted in a state far away from their nameless town, and along with his sister Mel, they can’t wait to leave this boring, difficult life behind.
What is very obviously woven into the storyline – and incredibly well done – is the theme of mental health. This resonated very deeply with me and it’s something that I, as a reader, have not read enough of. Mikey suffers with OCD and it is shown early in the novel that whilst it has been under control for some time now, Mikey is beginning to slip back into what he calls ‘loops’, where he simply can’t escape repeating actions over and over because of the inner fear that if he doesn’t do something ‘right’ then something terrible will happen. Ness outlines that even Mikey has no knowledge of what ‘right’ is, but that it is dangerous. He washes his hands until they bleed, he scrubs his face until it hurts and spends minutes closing and locking doors before leaving the house. Mikey recognises the destructiveness of these actions, but also feels his inability to stop himself from repeating them because he fears that the one time he does something bad will happen to someone around him. It’s suggested that it is made worse by times of high stress, and Mikey’s life is full of this – he’s leaving high school, his mother is politically involved in a campaign within their town and is focussed on making their family look like the normal, wholesome American ideal, he’s concerned for his siblings and friends, and to top it all off there’s a secret desire for one of his best friends that he’s kept hidden for too long eating away at him day by day.
Ness’s aim with this character, and the novel as a whole, was to show the normality of these things. Stress is a real thing we deal with. High School kids suffer. Mental health absolutely sucks – it’s diminishing and hard to accommodate. Mikey has a lot of self-hatred and deems himself not good enough for those around him, including his best friend Jared. But Ness’s point in the novel is to show that normal people can be heroes in everyday life by how they react to and treat these situations. Spoiler alert, Mikey actively seeks help as his compulsions get worse. He speaks to Jared about what he is experiencing before approaching his mother and asking to return to therapy for his OCD. He opens up about his self-hatred and, as much as he would like not to, he begins taking medication again in order to actively deal with his issues. On a personal level, I know how difficult these things are, and I have so much respect for people that actively seek this help – deeming yourself worthy enough to warrant help and to live is an almighty step forward, one that we, as a society, do not discuss. Mental health remains a taboo when it shouldn’t and Ness is making this clear through Mikey, who, therefore, is extraordinary in his own right.
He’s not the only character suffering from mental health problems either. His sister, Mel is anorexic/bulimic. I say is because mental health issues do not disappear. She is in recovery, Mikey describes some of the horrors her body was put through during the extreme times. She is a year older than her brother, but because of the physical response her body took and the time she stayed away from education in order to recover, they are in the same year at school and will be graduating together. Their relationship is heart-warming. At moments in the novel, Mikey believes Mel may have relapsed, and his fear is incredibly apparent, but their strong, loving relationship for each other demonstrates how they care and value their friendship and siblinghood. It’s made clear that their relationships with their politically minded mother and alcoholic father are strained and, therefore, they find it difficult to turn to or confide in these people, so they make do and support each other. Again, they are heroes in their own right.
A secondary theme we are introduced to in the novel which is arguably as important, is the theme of sexuality. Mikey is open that he has ‘fooled around’ with his best friend, Jared, and Jared is somewhat open about his homosexuality, though it is quiet and not flamboyant. Again, Ness has worked hard to maintain the premise of this novel being about normal people and the struggles they face. Jared is a delight – he is quirky and you can tell how deeply he cares for Mikey. The conversations regarding Mikey’s OCD primarily happen between these two. They have a long history together and a friendship that is worthwhile. Jared also repeatedly ‘saves’ Mikey from his loops – he physically stops him from washing his hands and face when he can see the damage he is causing. This is a more obvious example of a hero within the novel. Oh, and to add to this character, he’s also part God.
His family tree is touched upon and, in this almost normal world, somewhere along the line, Jared’s family was connected with some Gods. Jared quite literally has the power to heal people – not fully, only take some pain away, make a few grazes here and there look a little better or perhaps speed along the healing process. This is such an obvious metaphor for friendship and the importance of surrounding yourself with others to heal mental health issues. Jared stops Mikey and protects him, he also has the ability to physically heal him whilst helping him through his mental health issues, talking to him, offering him support. Bravo Ness, you wove that in very skilfully.
And that brings us to the other side of the novel – the extraordinary side. There is a secondary storyline running alongside this everyday group of kids waiting to graduate high school, and it’s introduced instantly. Each chapter begins with a small paragraph, simply a few sentences long giving you the breakdown of events happening to the characters we don’t focus on. This is Ness’s form of satire – he is highlighting how Young Adult fiction picks a quirky kid, introduces an outside otherworldly threat and how only they, this one specific less than ordinary kid, can resolve the issue and save the world. It also points to how this genre of writing simply ignores the issues its target audience deals with every day of their lives.
These extraordinary kids are referred to over and over as ‘indie-kids’ – they’re all quirky and wear black clothes and have strange names, like Satchel and Finn. Ness is poking fun at this genre of repetitive writing that we as readers see over and over and that Ness himself has, and will continue to write.
The otherworldly threats are not unknown to our main, normal characters either. There are references to past incidents involving Vampires, people dying and the school being blown up. They’re acknowledged but also a non-issue, because we’re looking at the normal kids who know someone else will take care of this event whilst they struggle to power through day to day life. These things aren’t threats because they’re unrealistic.
I really enjoyed how this was done – Ness highlights the typical tropes in this kind of fiction and makes fun of them in a light-hearted way to really drive home his point that the normal everyday life of teenagers is hard enough, and that this deserves to be examined and praised. The two worlds do collide every now and again as the threat becomes more real and close to taking over the earth – mysterious blue lights appear, police officers with blue eyes begin wandering the streets late at night, and a bomb goes off endangering Mikey and his sisters. But at no point is it the focus of the story.
The ending of the novel was gorgeous. Ness does endings perfectly. They all graduate, but Jared has a secret. He’s been negotiating with his Godly ancestors – they want him to ascend and join them, to use his powers to help others. Jared reveals this to Mikey along with the clause that it won’t happen until they finish college. This was saddening but again makes a clear point – life is hard and we can’t always be selfish when others are in need. But then Jared adds a twist. Another condition is that he has full healing abilities. Why? Because he wants to heal Mikey. He wants to remove his OCD, he wants to make it all better because he can’t stand seeing him suffering the way he does. He wants to do the same for Mel, but first of all he wants to help his best friend and help him see how important it is that he keeps living. Mikey has had a hard time accepting this in the novel – that he is valued and that he is wanted, and it is mentioned that he sees one of the easiest ways out to be to kill himself. Jared’s love for his friend and his wish that he would keep living, his want to help him as much as any friend would want to help another suffering is wonderfully done and gives you just that little bit of hope as a reader that it will all be okay in the end.
Ness doesn’t make it the perfect ending though – Mikey decides that he wants to try and manage his problems himself, because if he didn’t, he would never know if he could. Mikey is overwhelmed by this pure act of love that is shown to him – love without conditions from someone who also means the world to him.
The twists and turns of this novel are not as you expect – he doesn’t end up with the girl, or even the boy. Mikey doesn’t reconcile with him mom, he doesn’t end the novel moving away.
I was incredibly impressed with how interesting a novel about normality could be. This was a beautiful read and I really enjoyed it. Ness is an incredibly talented writer and I will always look forward to reading his work, whether it’s fantasy fiction or about the trials and tribulations we all face as the human race.
Write you soon!
*NB – this was published a week after I finished the book and I’ve almost finished the next installment