Thursday, June 25, 2020

#AmReading: The Double Review Edition

I had recently featured this book as my backlog pick, and Tanya was telling me how she also had this book collecting dust on the shelf, and I was able to guilt her, I mean convince her to buddy read with me. This is a first for me, and it turned out well for both of us. After we exchanged reviews, we chatted a bit about what we liked or didn't like, as well as what we agreed or disagreed about in other reviews we read. I was impressed by how we were, more or less, on the same page with respect to this book, too. 

What You Left Behind

Jessica Verdi
Age/Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary 
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Jessica Verdi, the author of My Life After Now and The Summer I Wasn't Me, returns with a heartbreaking and poignant novel of grief and guilt that reads like Nicholas Sparks for teens.

It's all Ryden's fault. If he hadn't gotten Meg pregnant, she would have never stopped her chemo treatments and would still be alive. Instead he's failing fatherhood one dirty diaper at a time. And it's not like he's had time to grieve while struggling to care for their infant daughter, start his senior year, and earn the soccer scholarship he needs to go to college.

The one person who makes Ryden feel like his old self is Joni. She's fun and energetic-and doesn't know he has a baby. But the more time they spend together, the harder it becomes to keep his two worlds separate. Finding one of Meg's journals only stirs up old emotions. Ryden's convinced Meg left other notebooks for him to find, some message to help his new life make sense. But how is he going to have a future if he can't let go of the past?
Imagine you're seventeen, and the day your first love dies, you become a father. Well, Ryden didn't have to imagine that, because it's what happened to him. Sad, sad premise, right? Granted, there were definitely many tear inducing moments in this book, but it was also about a young man, who had a lot of growing up to do, and he had to do it fast. 

I found myself very invested in Ryden's struggle. He was young, and though he had a lot of support from his mother, he was still a single parent. I know there are many people, who felt Ryden was selfish, but I found myself sympathizing with him. He was still grieving the loss of Meg, his daughter's mother and his first love, and that loss was profound. This pain was compounded with the guilt he felt about getting her pregnant, and not being able to convince her to abort the baby, so she could continue her chemotherapy. 

In addition, Ryden was having trouble assuming his role as Hope's father. Life as he knew it ceased to exist. He was juggling work, school, and baby care, while trying to keep his dream of playing soccer at UCLA alive. His mother, who had also been a single teen parent herself, tried to get him to see the writing on the wall, but Ryden was slow to realize, that he had to let go of many parts of his past life in order to properly parent his child. 

Ryden felt lost as a parent, and he thought searching for Meg's journals would provide him with some insight into how to be a better father. Well, let me tell you, those journals were filled with TNT level confessions. If this had been a real world scenario, I probably would have been more upset by what was revealed, but because it was fiction, I was just a little shocked. Part of me felt as though this wasn't really necessary for the story, but it definitely upped the drama quotient. 

Overall, I found Ryden's journey from grief to acceptance very honest, heartbreaking, and even touching. I counted him lucky to have the support system he did, and was proud of him, when he finally got un-stuck, and started moving forward. 

RATING: 4 Stars

Ryden was not your average seventeen year old. Before he started his senior year of high school he’d fallen in love, lost his girlfriend to cancer, and become a father. Now about to start his senior year, he found himself juggling school, soccer, a job… and a baby. He’s also dealing with grief and guilt, convinced that he is to blame for Meg’s death. Consumed with “if only’s” – if only he hadn’t got Meg pregnant, if only he’d been able to convince her to terminate the pregnancy so she could have continued chemotherapy – Ryden struggled hard to find his footing.

Ryden had a plan: secure a soccer scholarship, move across the country for college at UCLA, and hopefully go pro. To say that a baby throws a wrench in those plans is an understatement. And yet Ryden was still laser-focused on sticking to his plan. Despite never having enough time, despite being late to soccer practices and getting heat from his coach, despite childcare issues… he was determined to make it work. There were times I just shook my head while reading and thought, “Oh, Ryden, just no” at some of his decisions, but at the same time, I understood. Here’s a grief-stricken teenager who was suddenly thrust into fatherhood and was floundering. I loved that his mother, who had also been a single teen parent, was supportive but didn’t push and allowed Ryden to make mistakes while he found his way. She was there for him, but she also let it be known that Hope was his baby and his responsibility.

There was a lot going on in What You Left Behind – grief, teen parenthood, parental abandonment (not by Ryden), growth and acceptance – but it all meshed well together to paint a complete picture of Ryden’s life. There was a great supporting cast of characters including Meg’s sister Mabel, her best friend Alan, and Joni, a co-worker of Ryden’s who he just might have feelings for. Meg’s journals played a big part of the story and Ryden searched for them relentlessly, convinced they would provide answers to make him a better father. The answers he got were unexpected (and pretty surprising!) but also went a long way in helping him face some hard truths.

Ryden was a young man facing some pretty overwhelming obstacles and, while he made some missteps along the way, I really appreciated watching his journey. I got choked up a few times, smiled a lot, and ultimately wanted to give this kid a big hug and say, “well done, Ryden.”

RATING: 4 Stars

Have you read any teen dad books?
Let us know in the comments!

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