History is All You Left Me (Book Review)

history is all you left meI have rarely had such a hard time getting through a novel… and I mean that in the best possible way. History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera is a really, really difficult read because it is really, really sad. It is also really, really good, but I can’t remember the last time I had to set a book aside for a few minutes to give myself time to recover emotionally.

What’s it about?

High school junior Griffin’s best friend and first love Theo has just died, and Griffin—who is crippled by OCD—falls apart. Even though they broke up when Theo moved to California for college (earlier than expected, by skipping senior year), Griffin believed that eventually he and Theo would find their way back to each other… even after Theo met Jackson. But now Theo is dead and Griffin sees his endgame crumble apart; all he has left is their history and the hope/belief that somewhere in another world, Theo can hear him explain and grieve, because for Griffin, life cannot go on without Theo:

“Trust me when I say I’m not talking down to you as I recall this memory, and many others, in great detail. I doubt it’ll even surprise you since we always joked about how your brain worked in funny ways. […] I just want you to remember things the way I do. And if bringing up the past annoys you now—as I know it did when you left New York for California—know that I’m sorry, but please don’t be mad at me for reliving all of it. History is all you left me.”

What’d I think?

Unsurprisingly (I was really impressed by the writing in More Happy Than Not), the writing in History is All You Left Me is unique and beautiful. In alternating chapters, Griffin recounts his present day—in which he speaks directly to Theo as if Theo could hear him—and his history with Theo that leads to the present situation. The two sections are very distinct emotionally.

The history section is warm and funny. Theo is a dynamic, adorable character and though the other characters who populate that section—most notably Theo and Griffin’s third wheel Wade—don’t stand out as much, that’s just as well because it contributes to the feeling that Theo is the center of the universe and everyone else is just revolving around him and reflecting his brightness.

leslie everything hurts and I'm dyingThe present day section is crushingly, desperately sad. The ocean may have taken Theo, but Griffin is drowning and Silvera’s writing is so good that the reader drowns with him. There were moments (if I’m being totally honest, lots of moments) when I felt literally breathless, like the air had actually been squeezed out of me. That’s why it took me so long to make it through this book. I had to take a step back every so often to remind myself that I haven’t actually lost anyone.

Aside from A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, no book has ever forced me to feel loss so acutely. (Funnily enough, Ness actually blurbed History is All You Left Me)

“I don’t know what will be left of me if love and grief can’t bring you back to life. Maybe I need to be brought back to life, too.”

Another really impressive thing about the way the different sections are handled is how differently Griffin’s compulsions come across. In the past, they seem harmless, even endearing because that’s the way that Theo approaches them. In the present, they are dangerous and concerning. For the most part, I love the way that Griffin’s mental illnesses are treated. His issues are not sidelined or made light of (though I do feel that [spoiler redacted] pushes Griffin too hard, too fast towards the end).

The sections weave together really well. Small events and references crop up across both, and they’re really well placed. A moment will be referenced in the present and several chapters later the original event will be detailed in the history (or, occasionally, the opposite). The surprises are really well spaced out. Just when I started to think that I had figured out most of what had happened in the past, I hit the last wave of revelations and was actually shocked. I really want to go back someday and reread the novel, paying more attention to the events and characters that initially did not make big impressions on me.

Thematically, the novel is also really strong. It reflects on love, grief, loss, regret, guilt, friendship, and more.

That being said, as sad as History is All You Left Me is, it is not all doom and gloom and depression. It is genuinely funny in some parts. Theo and Griffin’s plans to thwart the zombie-pirate apocalypse are silly and fun. Theo’s theory about alternate universes is interesting (though admittedly heartbreaking in places), and the Harry Potter and Star Wars nerdiness makes me really happy.

What’s the verdict?

I absolutely recommend History is All You Left Me, but you definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to read it. It isn’t exactly a breezy beach read. If you’re not opposed to crying a bit, you should absolutely read it, because the writing is amazing and the characters are so lifelike that reading the novel actually feels like grieving a close friend. I really, really enjoyed it but I am looking forward to reading something a bit more cheerful.

Report card.

Writing: A+         Characters: A          Themes: A         Plot: A      Enjoyability: A         Final: A

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