A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Flux Books in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
“No matter how much I want it to be true, I can’t be dead and alive all at once.”
I just read over all the things I highlighted while reading Words and Their Meanings, trying to choose a good one to start off my review. The problem is, they’re all spectacular. I finished the book less than a week ago, and after reading through my notes, I’m ready to start it all over again right now.
It’s Anna’s voice that grabs you, right from the beginning:
“I can’t hold my breath for the full nineteen minutes. I made it to three minutes once, but then I passed out. Instead, I have to settle for statue stillness and bulging my eyes wide enough to hurt. Coffin yoga has a lot of rules, but I think the no blinking part is the most important. Pupils should show during the open casket experience.”
If she doesn’t have your attention, I’m not sure what it takes. Anna is raw, but not abrasive, sarcastic without becoming acerbic. She’s an authentic teenage voice–something I feel like we talk about a lot as adults reading YA lit, but I felt like Anna was an actual teenager, and not just an adult version of one, or how we might project our nostalgia-tinged memories of teen-hood upon a character. Despite her flaws and insecurities (or perhaps because of them), I felt like Anna was a teenager I’d actually like to know–she’s intelligent, talented, confident enough to be starkly individual, even in the face of criticism, and as stubborn as all get-out when it comes to sticking by her course. Deep down, though, Anna is in deep denial about the larger issues happening in her life, and struggling to cope with the emotional implications of the events around her. Anna’s complexity is deeply moving, and I adored her.
“I stop paying attention after the third round of blahs because I notice every girl in our little penguin colony is looking toward my left. So I turn to see if there’s a ghost in the pantry but instead discover a real-time movie otherwise known as “beautiful boy in kitchen making magic with his hands.”
Mateo’s personality is every bit as complex, if for different reasons, and I found him a profoundly satisfying match for Anna. His strength and willingness to buoy Anna up, no matter what was happening, made him a character I think readers will love (even if there is one scene that made me wonder what on EARTH he was thinking, and which I thought could have unfolded with maybe a little more explanation. It kind of got chucked at us? But we’re cool, Mateo. We’re cool). Anna’s grandfather, her sister Bea, and her mother are all strong secondary characters, and her best friend Nat is the kind of friend we all hope for–the one who will jump in the car and drive to bail you out, even when she’s mad.
Bassett’s prose is expressive and vivid. Phrases like, “A triangle of silence bounces between us,” made my writer’s heart happy. How original and evocative is that? The entire book is filled with similar gems, and it’s one of the reasons I did not want to put this book down (and thank goodness for it, because I was really in a deep reading rut before this book).
As for the plot, as a contemporary lit fan, I was pleased. I keep trying to decide how much to discuss, and honestly, I don’t think I want to say anything at all. I went into Words without having looked up the synopsis, and I got to let it unfold without knowing what was going to happen. I think this is the kind of book that can speak for itself. I will say, though, that I loved Bassett’s thoughts on the sometimes irrational ways we deal with trauma, and how they sometimes help us cope.
FYI: Some language that’d fall into the PG-13 category, including one F-word, early on. 4.5 stars for a book that I thought was very nearly perfect.
“I ask Mateo to lean back his seat so I can crawl over, and when I do, I forgo his lips and lay my head straight into the crook of his shoulder. We fit like sculpture pieces. I would stay here forever; his heartbeat a metronome in my ears, his hands moving in barely traceable lines up and down my back.”
Words and Their Meanings released on Monday and is on shelves now. Go! Read! Enjoy!