“I want to say that I know for sure that I’m different from my dad. That my heart beats in a different rhythm, my blood pulses at a different speed. But I’m not sure. Maybe the sadness comes just before the insanity. Maybe he and I share the same potential energy.”
Sixteen-year-old Aysel Seran’s father ruined her life when he snapped and murdered hometown hero and Olympic hopeful Timothy Jackson. With Timothy’s brother Brian poised to fulfill his brother’s Olympic dreams, no one in their small Kentucky town can forget what her father did, or dissociate her from his crime. Depressed and suicidal, but haunted by the lingering question of what will happen to her potential energy when she dies, Aysel decides that a suicide pact is just the thing to ensure she doesn’t chicken out. Enter FrozenRobot, real name Roman, a boy from the next town over who places an online ad for a suicide partner. Roman and Aysel have little in common, but the more Aysel gets to know Roman and his family, the less sure she is about taking the plunge. But Suicide Partners don’t break their promises.
I was a bit hesitant about this book despite many stellar recommendations, because I don’t normally care much for plots that minimize the severity of depression by magically curing it with a new romance. However, Jasmine Warga handles this potentially tricky situation well. Aysel refers to her depression as the “black slug,” a creature that lives inside her and eats up her happy feelings before she can experience them. Falling for Roman doesn’t so much cure her depression as it cracks a window and lets Aysel get a glimpse of what might be possible, just enough so that she begins to have doubts. Neither one of them is fixed by these new feelings, and in fact they make everything more complicated and confusing rather than solving things. Aysel is gutted every time she has to interact with Roman’s mom, who believes that Aysel’s presence in his life is a sign that he is getting better. It’s also complicated to really like Roman as a love interest, because he is pressuring Aysel not to “flake out” on their agreement.
The suicide pact is an unexpectedly effective narrative tool for showing how Aysel turns around. Though Aysel can’t see through her own dark cloud, she can see through Roman’s, to someone who is smart, talented, and caring, and who will break his mother’s heart with his death. Her own irrational fears smother her and seem logical, but she can see the irrational guilt that is driving Roman to his death. Roman’s fixation on committing suicide on a particular date allows doubt to seep in slowly, so that it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that Aysel changes from someone who is going to commit suicide to someone looking for a way out, for Roman as well as herself. Given that she spent three years thinking about suicide without actually going through with it before meeting Roman, I didn’t find it difficult to believe that those doubts might persist even after making a suicide pact.
Despite the heavy subject matter, there is a surprising amount of levity in My Heart and Other Black Holes. I laughed aloud when Aysel deadpans, “If I have a boyfriend, his name is death. And I’m pretty sure Roman is in love with him, too. It’s like a love triangle gone wrong. Or maybe it’s a love triangle gone right: we both get the guy on April 7.” Warga explains Aysel’s depression in a way that is entirely relateable, but also gives her moments of dark humour and adolescent snark that made me fiercely love her character. And although the book focuses around the time Aysel spends with Roman making plans to die, there is some nice development of her relationship with her half-sister, Georgia, and their mother that bode well for her future. Warga’s open-ended conclusion offers the possibility of hope while also acknowledging the long road ahead.
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