Author: Antonia Michaelis (Translated by Miriam Debbage)
Publication Date: 1/1/12
Publisher: Amulet Books
Blurb(GR): Anna and Abel couldn't be more different. They are both 17 and in their last year of school, but while Anna lives in a nice old town house and comes from a well-to-do family, Abel, the school drug dealer, lives in a big, prison-like tower block at the edge of town. Anna is afraid of him until she realizes that he is caring for his six-year-old sister on his own.
I picked this up expecting a young adult coming of age/romance with a bit of magical realism and maybe a few darker themes about poverty and drug abuse. Okay, so here’s my little confession: I picked this up expecting Perfect Chemistry, with a side order of fairy tales and 150% more depth. One would assume (har har) that I’d learned not to make assumptions in my thirty-some years of life, and yet here we are. This book was so utterly different than what I was expecting. I didn’t read any reviews prior to starting and I think that was actually a mistake. I really should have paid a bit more attention to that cover: just look at that pretty purple rose…wilting in the frost…with spots of blood on it. *shudder* Upon finishing this book, I was so completely at a loss; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I felt like I’d just walked into what I thought was a kid’s petting zoo, only to discover that it was actually a baby animal slaughterhouse.
And I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone…but…I think that anyone who’s going to attempt this book needs to know the following:
a) There are people out there who grow up in horrific, abusive situations and yet they survive and learn to cope. They find help and learn to accept who they are.
This book is not about those people.
b) There are kind, patient people who, through the setting of boundaries, can have healthy non-codependent relationships with severely damaged people and help them to get through.
This book is most definitely not about those people.
This book is about Anna, a good girl. A girl raised with every advantage. A girl who feels trapped by her own inexperience.
“Who was she? A girl inside a bubble. The daughter of Magnus and Linda Leemann, from a nice district of Griefswald, from a house of blue air. High school student in her last year, musician, English au pair to be. Gitta’s squeaky-clean little lamb. No. She was someone who didn’t know yet who she was or would be.”
And this book is about Abel, a mystery. He’s an older brother, a drug dealer, an abandoned kid, a self-destructive person, and a storyteller. Anna is intrigued by him; she wants to figure him out. She wants to know something outside her bubble of blue air, so she follows him one day. She’s surprised when the scary-looking Abel picks up a little girl in a pink coat, and she’s even more surprised when he begins to tell her a haunting, beautiful fairy tale. Anna is captivated but she’s soon discovered eavesdropping. Abel is thorny and protective of the little girl – his sister, Micha – but Anna is persistent. Soon she’s becoming involved in their lives – in Abel’s desperate attempt to keep his sister by his side even though he’s a minor, in Micha’s questions about their missing mother. Anna is determined to help, even as Abel tries to push her away. But even as he’s pushing her away, she’s becoming a main character in his stories.
“’Your roses are already starting to wilt,’ the sea lion said to the rose girl. 'Not only where I tore them but everywhere else on your body, too. They will wither. And you will freeze in the cold wind.’”
This book is bleak. I’m not actually sure that I knew the definition of that word before reading this book. Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration. However, I must say that while I am quite often that reviewer who cries, “Too neat! Too happy!” this was probably the first time that I ever wanted to whimper, “Too dark” and then back away slowly…and huddle in a corner. This book really, really got under my skin and not always in a good way. It made me feel angry and hopeless. The relationship portrayed here is twisted and sick. It made me physically ill to read about it but I can’t deny that it’s realistic. I hated Abel and I hated Anna, but I related to them too: Abel and his need to keep everyone at a distance, Anna and her cloak of torn love. And I love the idea of two messed up, broken kids who can only truly connect in a fairy tale, but never in their real lives. I love the idea that somewhere inside a hopelessly damaged person, there lies a small, untouched, sacred place – a place for fairy tales.
However, I think that in the end I loved the idea of this book more than the finished product. Abel is a bit too much a cipher. He never feels fully fleshed out as a character, in my opinion. He’s proud and self-contained, but I never really felt the pain underneath all that, and I needed to. I needed to be able to relate to him in some more tangible way. In a few places he even feels a bit like a stereotype. It's possible that my own preconceived notions about this book colored my thoughts about him a little too much. Perhaps Abel would come through more clearly to me on a re-read? If I could stand one.
The narration is also a little odd. It’s third person, and hovers over Anna for about 95% of the book, but then takes occasional little detours to follow Gitta (Anna’s friend), Bertil (another friend), Abel, or Soren (a teacher). When we’re with Anna, the narrator is intimate and free with information, but when we’re with anyone else…it becomes a vague, tight-fisted liar. It feels a little too much like reader manipulation – like the author’s blatant attempt to keep everything a mystery until the very end. However, I just adore Antonia Michaelis’ writing. She writes beautiful, evocative, stunning prose. I highlighted so many passages.
I'm not really sure how readers will react to this book. I'm having a difficult time with my own reaction to this book. It’s a dark, difficult (yet beautiful) read. That being said, I really want you all to read it, because I desperately need someone to have this conversation with right now:
“Could you believe that he…?”
“NO. That was INSANE.”
“And then she…”
“OMG, don’t even get me started.”
So get to it!
Perfect Musical Pairing
We Are Augustines - Book of James
“Storm clouds began to form in his head
and crisscrossed his mind like a restless angry ocean
And the howling of hardship and heartache kneeled and grinned in his face
He stood there in his shoes unable to move
Kid I drove all night here to tell you that I love you”