Emery Lord is fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers of the YA market. Her books are insightful and full of heart. With this, her third standalone, Lord examines a sun-dappled summer in which townie Jonah Daniels and Seattle native Vivi Alexander fall madly for one another. The book also deals with the ups-and-downs of crippling grief and the back-and-forth nature of mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. When We Collided seems poised to merely be a bit of fluff but trust me, it’s so much more than that. Ever so much more than that.
Vivi and her artist mother, Carrie, are on holiday in Verona Cove California for the summer. Vivi, vivacious and creative, has landed a job at a small pottery studio. One morning, out of the blue, in walks a young man named Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah. Vivi is immediately attracted to Jonah and decides to make him her summer boy. Jonah, equally dazzled by Vivi, reluctantly (and helplessly) watches as his sister invites her over to their home for dinner.
But things are not as innocent as they seem. Both Jonah and Vivi possess secrets that could harm one another. Seven months earlier Jonah’s father died from a heart attack at a young age. Since then his mother has lapsed into severe depression, barely moving from her bed. This forces Jonah and his two eldest siblings, Silas and Naomi, to take on the task of raising their three youngest siblings, Leah, Isaac, and Bekah. Around working full-time in their family’s restaurant, Jonah strikes up a sweet romance with Vivi, an exuberant girl with a jagged scar on her arm and a flair for the dramatics.
When We Collided is a perfect look inside the life of the clinically depressed. It explores the insides of continued grief and the way in which we heal from such tragedies. It opens a conversation that we need to be having as a nation; one of the treatment of the mentally unhealthy and of how we can help both the patient and their loved ones live with such diseases. Vivi’s bipolar disorder impacts everyone that she touches in both positive and negative ways. Her manic moments are poignantly captured and expressively written. To see how vividly Lord creates such moments, and how succinctly she defines such conditions, is a sight to behold. Seeing such disease from the outside is horrible. What is worse is growing up not knowing what causes such behaviour. Personally speaking, I keyed into all of Vivi’s episodes because I myself have lived in very close quarters with a parent who suffers from bipolar disorder – my father.
Please allow me a slight segue to explain a few personal things…It’s all relevant, I promise.
My father was undiagnosed (and unmedicated) until well into my adulthood. Most of my childhood was defined by exhaustive bouts of anger, abuse, and punctuated with violence and extreme mood swings, and we never knew why. When we discovered the illness, there came a period of promising unrest – of medical adjustments, uncertainty, and more mood swings, anger, and abuse. To date, my father and I do not speak because he has chosen to live his life unmedicated. This decision has ruined any of my future relationship with him and I have decided to surrender our closeness to his bipolar, backing out with my hands in the air. I cannot allow such toxic and corrosive behaviour to touch me anymore. For much of my life I have feared this with regards to myself – that I might suffer from this disease (as of now, I do not). However, growing up with this illness around you informs your behaviour in little ways that you do not catch – you find yourself reacting inappropriately to social situations, you grow angry at things you shouldn’t and blow up about the littlest things. I hear myself echoing words that my father says and I cringe. Next, I attempt to correct these things from the onset…learned behaviours, as it turns out, are entirely different from inborn chemical imbalances.
Mostly, I wanted to share this to open my own dialogue about things that I discovered from reading this book, things that you might see and not realize are important. Little things, subtle things.
There’s a vulnerability to each of Lord’s characters, particularly the two principles. When We Collided is told in dual point-of-view from Vivi to Jonah’s voice. In these dialogues we get two sides of the story – the manic and the misunderstanding. Vivi is one step ahead of Jonah in that she knows about her own mental instability but chooses not to inform him. Jonah knows little of her but the things he sees and chooses to ignore (or clearly does not comprehend). He sees that she has a scar from self-harming but opts to never ask her about it. I found this part of his characterization to be the most telling about him. Jonah has so many things going on that he doesn’t want to think that Vivi, a girl who pulls him out of his own doldrums, might be unhappy as well. He doesn’t want to know her personal tragedies. He sees her as the brightest star shining on his own desolate planet, a solar flare and a hot, burning passion. He falls into her wholeheartedly and refuses to believe that she might, in any way, harm him or those he loves…Until she does and by then it is far too late.
Jonah’s chapters were my favourite. He has so much going on, so much pain and so much growth. He is the true heart of this book.
Vivi, however, is also a wonder. At first she shines like all of the heavens at their warmest, but her journey is also fraught with pain. She has no father and her mother refuses to tell her anything about him. This becomes a pivotal plot point in the story, one that shakes all of Vivi’s foundations. Within her chapters we get the full force of her bipolar disorder – her mood shifts and her flitting thought patterns, her sky-highest highs and fathoms-deep lows. We see her creativity and her intensity and her tempers and her whims. We see the clear and full-throated power of her voice, something that many authors struggle in defining. Lord hasn’t failed us with Vivi, her personality is so crystallized that she leaps from the page into our consciousness. But her journey is a double-edged sword, one that cleaves and cuts through the social nuances of everything. Vivi is a hard character to love and an even harder character to read. She is also everything that we want to be growing up – bold, fearless, undaunted, and full of the utmost anger. Vivi is passion personified and it is so clear why Jonah (and everyone else) falls for her. It is also infinitely clear why I, as a reader, fell in love with Jonah. He is her perfect foil – a solid, trustworthy, and unreserved care-taker. And he loves everything about her, even her unlovable faults.
This book is everything that I wanted and everything that I need as a reader. It carries a conversation about mental illness throughout and beyond the closing of the pages. It seeps into ones consciousness and clears a path for a necessary social upheaval. It breaks your heart and repairs you anew, fragile and broken for another beautiful, and necessary, conversation. It does all of the things that books are supposed to do – elevate, question, excite, sadden, and smile. It is a tender book that Lord has written, a necessary evil in a world of unnecessary beauties.
It took a few books, Lord, but this one has really overwhelmed me and I thank you for this read. I’m keeping watch now because this book, with all of its ugly truth, has hooked me completely.
5 out of 5 stars.
* When We Collided releases April 5, 2016. An advanced reader copy was provided for review from the fine folks at Bloosmbury.
– Follow the Reader –