Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“The shrinks all want to talk about coffin yoga. They can’t fathom the way some people have no rhyme or reason to their mourning. How maybe there are more ways to grieve than the stupid fives steps outlined in their colorful pamphlets.”
Anna, once an aspiring writer, lost her words the day her uncle died. It’s been one year since Joe’s death, and everyone, from her therapist, to her parents, thinks she should be getting over it by now. But Anna hasn’t told anyone about how Joe’s death is really her fault, so she has to go on coping as best she knows how; by emulating 70s punk rocker Patti Smith, and doing nineteen minutes of “coffin yoga” every morning, one minute for every year of Joe’s life. Anna promised her parents that the “deadaversary” would be a turning point, but only because they have threatened to send her to a summer camp for troubled teens if she doesn’t start trying to act more normal. But two events really do turn out to be catalysts for change. First, she meets Mateo at her new job and strikes up a relationship. She also discovers a terrible secret Joe was keeping which forces her to question how well she knew him, even as she sets out to try to solve the mystery of his betrayal.
Words and Their Meanings is a first-person narrative that takes the reader deep into the unprocessed grief of an unhappy teenager carrying a heavy burden of guilt. Being inside Anna’s head is chaotic and angsty, in a way that is both exhausting and terribly real. If there is any drawback to the novel, it is that it is difficult to be with Anna on this emotional rollercoaster. Her grief is raw, vivid, and genuine, and beautifully counterpointed by her intense new feelings for Mateo. Anna falls for Mateo fast and hard, but can’t help feeling guilty about embarking on a romance when Joe is dead, a circumstance for which she blames herself. Her parents have also divorced in the aftermath, as her father engages in his own inappropriate expressions of grief. Her younger sister Bea copes by hiding in unexpected and dangerous places, while her mother simply tries to hold it all together.
Words and Their Meanings also comes with strong cast of secondary characters. Although he is primarily the love interest, in some ways Mateo is also a reflection of Anna as she could have been if Joe hadn’t died. He is a talented chef, on his way to a top culinary program, and a successful career, but struggling under the pressure of that future. Anna has lost or given up her words, relinquishing the pressure that went with her talent in favour of expressing herself through Patti Smith’s lyrics. But perhaps the most intriguing character is Gramps, who is the only member of the family who doesn’t seem to have been unhinged by Joe’s death. He is a rock, and a source of wisdom, but Anna isn’t really ready to hear most of what he has to say.
In addition to the strong characters, there is also a lot of beautiful writing in Words and Their Meanings. Kate Bassett hands Anna snippets of glittering prose, which managed to make me believe the extent of Anna’s potential as a writer without her ever having to write anything during the story. She lets Patti Smith speak for her instead, with daily verses inscribed in marker on her arms, and the selections are stunningly apt reflections of Anna’s struggle. The verses fade away as Anna forgets to engage in her rituals of grief, and I found myself missing them, even though I knew the story didn’t need them anymore. It left me intensely curious about the life and work of Patti Smith, a strange role model for a modern teenager if there ever was one.
Words and Their Meanings is a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. The highs are high, and the lows are low, making this an intensely emotional read from start to finish.
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