The New Kind of Problem Novel: ‘My Life After Now’ by Jessica Verdi

Have you ever come across a book that you just can’t put down? A book where the voice immediately grabs demands your attention because it’s so real, so authentic, so undeniable that it hooks you from the first page to the last, is the one quality that I look for most when I sit down and attempt to dive in to a new book. It’s rare to find, believe it or not. For the bajillions of books that live on store shelves all across the world, there are few that can actually speak.

Jess Verdi’s My Life After Now is one of those books.

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My Life After Now is told from protagonist Lucy’s perspective. Lucy is the best kind of teenage drama nerd who, at the start of the novel, is prepping for her projected role as Juliet in her high school’s fall production of Romeo and Juliet. This novel is a must-have for anyone who was involved in drama club or participated in school plays and musicals (I totally wasn’t, but my best friends always were. Call me a groupie), or anyone who can appreciate the ART and passion of acting. I mean, each chapter title is a Broadway show tune! I often found myself playing “NAME THAT SONG” while reading. If you’re not into Broadway and acting and drama clubs, don’t worry; that’s not important. I mean, it plays a huge role in the development and progression of Lucy’s character and her friend/relationships, but it’s so well-written that you don’t need to be a drama nerd to absolutely get it.

The first paragraph, a short two-liner that not only sets the scene, but gives us just the right amount of context and VOICE to set us on fire:

“The drama club homeroom was buzzing with post-summer chatter, but I didn’t look up from my copy of Romeo and Juliet. Auditions were this afternoon, and there was no such thing as being too prepared.”

Lucy is readying her audition. She takes acting very seriously. She is a go-getter, a perfectionist, someone who is never quite prepared enough. She is focused and determined and can easily tune people out.

And that is enough to adequately describe who she is at the beginning of the novel, AND who she becomes as the novel progresses and she finds herself in one of the most terrifying situations EVER.

The book jacket asks, “What Now?”, a question that we all tend to ask ourselves. ALL THE TIME. I know I do. What do we do after something life-altering happens? Hell, what do we do after we find ourselves out of milk when all we want is cereal for breakfast (I’m totally not speaking from my experience this morning, BTW). The difference here is that Lucy had to deal with something that most teenagers barely give a second thought.

See, our go-getter narrator is not having the best time at the start of the school year. Her arch nemesis –  who has a tendency to steal all of Lucy’s parts – has transferred to her school and stolen her boyfriend. Like any normal sixteen year old, she decides to blow off some steam with her best friends, Courtney and Max, and head into NYC and put their fake IDs to good use.

Girl gets drunk. Girl meets hottie band member. Girl goes home with hottie band member. Girl makes the same mistake that most drunk, upset teens make when their emotions are heightened and inhibitions are lowered: girl has sex.

As the reader, you know what she’s doing is wrong. Horribly wrong. Shake-the-sense-into-her-head wrong! But you’ve been there, and it feels right, and she’s only having a little bit of fun, so what’s the worst that could happen, right? By the way Verdi wrote every scene leading up to this moment, by the time we get to this, we’re expecting it. It feels unnaturally natural. Not that Lucy is some teenage whore, because it’s actually the complete opposite; you can feel her emotions, and you understand her NEED to release. So while it’s so wrong, it feels so completely right.

At the moment.

And then she wakes up.

“A beam of warm, white light pierced my eyelids. I cracked one eye open, then the other, and blinked at the curtain less, bar-clad window. 

Where am I?

I moved to prop myself up on my elbows, but the sudden shift in position made my body angry. My stomach heaved and I was weak and shaky. My brain felt like it was sloshing around in my head and crashing into the walls of my skull. 

The I remembered — I got wasted last night. This must be what a hangover felt like. All I could do was lie perfectly still, clear my mind, and wait for the nausea to subside.

When I was read to try again, I carefully sat up and looked around.

I was in a small room, not much larger than the bed I was in. The sink was piled high with dirty dishes, and laid out on the counter were tiny little Ziploc baggies, needles and pipes.

Under the familiar sheets, I was completely naked.”

The feeling of being dirty, unclean, diseased; it’s all there, in the subtext, before Verdi even gets to the main obstacle that Lucy will have to face. This is the catalyst that propels the rest of the plot forward.

The entire tone of the book changes after this; Lucy, a once-happy-go-lucky teenage girl, discovers that, through this interaction, she has contracted HIV.

Verdi writes in a way that’s completely accessible to any reader. It’s fast-paced, but not too much so that it’s hard to follow the action. In fact, I found myself breathless throughout most of the book due to the circumstances and the emotion that Lucy is experiencing. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s unbelievably believable.

I felt every single moment of guilt, twinge of pain, moment of quiet — and not-so-silent — sorrow and anguish. I rose up and felt triumphant during the small victories, and I rooted for her every step of the way.

This book is a triumph of modern young adult literature. It’s completely unique and stands out against shelves of books about proms and ex-boyfriends, books that have a high word count, but never really say anything. It’s a “Problem Novel” (I hate that label, but think Laurie Halse Anderson and that’s what this book reminds me of…only with a more authentic voice, and more fun moments that lend itself to a some really great light-hearted moments in an otherwise frightening landscape) that sheds light on a subject usually reserved as a unit for high school health classes. It’s informative, but I never felt, not for a moment, that it was preachy. Verdi’s writing style is accessible in all the right ways; it’s never pretentious, it’s not filled with platitudes or cliches. It’s straight-forward. It made me laugh, cry, and filled me with fear in all the right places. I wish I could quote the entire book, especially those moments where her thoughts revolve around HIV; they’re quiet, but speak volumes, and are filled with so much panic that it made me question my own clean Bill of Health.

Plus, I love a good book that contains a passage I wish I had written. In this particular scene, Lucy had just had an all-too-real experience at a free clinic in NYC and, after receiving her HIV test results, decides that she needs to feel completely anonymous:

“There’s something about New York City that gives you permission to just be. There’s no need for pretense, no need for masks. You can be real, without risk. The buildings are your protectors, the streets are your tethers. The people…you will never see them again. Even when they’re right in front of you, you don’t see them. Not really. Just as they don’t really see you. New York is beautifully anonymous.”

It’s real. And that’s hard to achieve.

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