Have you ever lost someone close to you? In the novel, We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour, the narrator Marin is deep in grief over the death of her grandfather. His passing is worsened by the fact that she has lived with him her whole life, since her mother died in a surfing accident when she was a toddler. Marin is far from her California home, in New York, but has also completely severed ties with her dear friend, Mabel. Mabel comes to visit Marin and LaCour shows the reader both the complexity of their relationship and the deep sadness that Marin feels. As a narrator, Marin goes back and forth between the present in the cold New York winter, and her life before her grandfather passed. It is during one of these flashbacks that Marin discovers a deep betrayal by her grandfather. This destroys Marin. Winner of the 2018 Michael Printz Award, We Are Okay, take the reader on a journey of loss, grief, friendship and how do deal with betrayal.
Even though I am approaching my middle age years, I have not yet had the experience of a great loss. My grandparents passed away during my life, my uncle in the passed year. I had a miscarriage before my children were born. But both of my parents are still alive and so are my siblings. In this way, I am privileged. In the last few years, however, I have exposed myself to grief, albeit second hand, whether through reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Jesym Ward’s article in Vanity Fair about the death of her husband, and as of late, Chimamda Adichie’s writings on the death of her parents (who died within months of each other). In this novel, LaCour not only exposes the reader to the trauma of Marin’s grief, but the many layers of it. In this scene, Marin has discovered that her grandfather has hidden something very precious from her:
“Those days and nights at the motel, I thought I was afraid of his ghost. But I wasn’t. I was afraid of my loneliness and how I’d been tricked…I was afraid of the man I’d loved and how he had been a stranger. I was afraid of how I hated him. How I wanted him back” (LaCour, 05:02)
Many years ago, my husband and I picked up a distant cousin to stay out our house to help him detox off of meth. After two weeks, he decided to go back to his user. What was I to do? We called his father to come pick him up, but by the time he arrived, my cousin had already left. We were put in an impossible situation, even though we just wanted to help. Friendship and family can be messy business. There is love and blood, but there are also boundaries that need to be set. Marin puts her friend Mabel and other people who love her in a difficult predicament. The moment she discovers her grandfather’s death, and his unforgiveable betrayal, she leaves for New York. She does not tell anyone, even as her Mabel and her family are waiting for her at the police station. She does not answer Mabel’s texts, she does not communicate with her grandfather’s friends. She does not contact anyone about the house they lived in or what will become of the house or the items in it. What would a friend do? Would they keep trying, or give you space? Would they fly to see you and demand you open the door? We Are Okay does an excellent job of addressing this question. In family and friends, it is true, decisions are not always obvious.
While the book became more engaging as it went on, I was not particularly drawn to the writing or story. But that may be because my tastes lie elsewhere. I recently read the adult novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh in which the protagonist, after the death of her parents, decides to shut herself in her apartment with the help of medication. While sad and sobering, its cynical overtone is hilarious and engaging. Initially the story reminded me of a perfect scenario for a horror film. I think utilizing fantasy or horror might, for me, give it a more substantial experience with a deeper dimension. At the same time, there is much worth to the book and I can imagine that many readers can relate and learn from it. Aside from the the predominant subject of grief and loneliness it also touches on topics such as sexuality and friendship. Lastly, it is a great option for high school students because unlike other YA books, it demonstrates the transition from high school to college.
LaCour’s novel, We Are Okay, deals head on with the issue of grief. She offers to the reader a story of Marin, whose mother drowned when she was young. But more than that, the reader sees Marin’s complete breakdown in which, upon learning of the deceptive life her grandfather led, she abandons her home, her friends and everything that connected her to her family. It is a novel of the limitlessness of friendship, even when you don’t know how to help. This book is recommended for any library that serves high school students.
LaCour, N. (2017). We are okay. Dutton Books for Young Readers