Jessa Russo asked me to help her promote her new novel Divide, which comes out tomorrow, and I suggested dragging my review for her debut Ever out of the archives. It’s something of an anomaly among her reviews, since I decided to wax pretentious and treat its protagonist as an unreliable narrator.
I should mention from the outset that I tend to avoid reading YA (young adult) fiction. I didn’t like being a teenager, so reading about them isn’t exactly appealing. I tend not to read romance, either, for reasons I can’t even pretend are reasonable.
First, the plot: seventeen year old Eleanor Van Ruysdael (whose nickname, Ever, is derived from her initials) has a dead boyfriend named Frankie, who died in a car crash which she survived. She isn’t over him yet, but it might be difficult to get over a teen crush who insists on haunting you.
What begins as a tale of unrequited love becomes a love triangle when twenty-two-year-old Toby and his father move into the house where Frankie and his family once lived. Though Ever tells us she’s stuck on Frankie on numerous occasions, she is instantly smitten with Toby — to the relief of her friend Jess. After some courtship between Ever and Toby, the arrival of Toby’s ex Ariadne further complicates matters.
Ariadne’s arrival kicks Ever into high gear by introducing an interpersonal conflict halfway through the novel. Ever can’t stand Ariadne, but the feeling isn’t mutual because Ariadne doesn’t regard Ever as an equal worthy of her enmity.
I won’t comment further on the plot, lest I spoil the ending. Instead, I will shift my attention to the mechanisms driving the story. In particular, I wish to consider Ms. Russo’s choice of viewpoint. Ever is told exclusively through the viewpoint of its protagonist. We only know what she tells us. We have no choice but to believe Frankie is real, because Ever tells us other people can see him. When Ever learns that Toby and Ariadne are “soul collectors”, we can only take her words at face value, but Ever doesn’t tell us what exactly soul collectors are, or how they do what they do, because she herself doesn’t know. We remain ignorant of Toby’s motives and those of Ariadne, because we’re limited to Ever’s viewpoint.
A cursory glance at the reviews on Goodreads suggests that this limited perspective frustrates a great many readers to the point where they end up despising the novel. I consider it Ever’s chief virtue. While I might praise Ever’s verisimilitude by virtue of its characters, who are annoying enough to remind me of the teenagers with whom I used to do time in high school, the real value of this novel lies in its unreliable narrator.
An unreliable narrator, according to Wikipedia, is “a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised” (emphasis mine). Ever’s youth and inexperience alone might compromise her as a narrator, but it’s her psychological issues which push her over the top. Her unresolved grief and survivors’ guilt are both obvious from the first page of the first chapter. Furthermore, because we have to take her word for the fact that others can see Frankie, the ghost himself might be a figment of Ever’s imagination — or a delusion. Even the events culminating in Ever`s cliffhanger ending might only be a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy we must accept at face value, because we only know what Ever tells us.
I don’t know if Jessa Russo intended for Ever to be an unreliable narrator. I could be overthinking a novel which is nothing more than solidly written young adult paranormal romance. Or, Jessa Russo might have infused her material with unexpected literary sophistication through her choice of viewpoint and the care with which she feeds the reader information.
Pick whichever interpretation you think is most flattering.