(#81) Book Review: The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle

When Laurel’s parents and younger brother are killed in a terrible car crash, her life is turned upside down.  Complicating the tragedy is the fact that her neighbor David’s father was behind the wheel when it happened.  David’s mother was killed, too, and his father is in a coma.  As Laurel tries to cope with her grief and adjust to the new life that has been forced upon her, she also struggles with growing apart from her best friend, questioning whether or not she’ll ever be seen as anything other than the girl whose family died, and wondering whether what she feels for David–who keeps disappearing and reappearing in her life–is real or is a result of their shared fates.

Jennifer Castle’s debut novel is a quiet little story, and although comparisons to Gayle Forman’s wildly popular If I Stay are going to be unavoidable, I actually think it does the book a disservice.  While Forman’s book flirts with the supernatural, Castle’s book is firmly rooted in reality, and it is her realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy and the very real process of grief that makes her book work so well.

This is largely a character-driven novel, and Castle gets it right, especially when it comes to Laurel and David.  Each character must navigate their own grief, and while each chooses to do it in different ways, they also find themselves drawn to one another.  The depth of their sorrow can only be understood by the other, and Castle does an admirable job of creating a relationship between the two that can only be forged through a shared sense of loss.  Laurel and David share an emotional connection that could be physical but is hindered by Laurel’s confusion about her feelings and David’s tendency to pull away.  It is an interpersonal relationship that is done extremely well.

The story is one that could be rife with cliches, but Castle manages to sidestep them, choosing instead to focus on the little moments that life offers in the wake of a huge loss.  This is done in part by allowing readers to trace the evolution of Laurel’s grief as she struggles to reconcile her loss with her desire to be normal again, but it is also helped along by creating a cast of secondary characters that are largely sympathetic.  Laurel’s grandmother, her best friend, and her crush Joe are some of the characters that help add dimension to the story without falling into stereotypes.

A compelling and subtly emotional read, Castle doesn’t go for the big tear-jerker moments so much as allows the readers to gently empathize with the pain that Laurel and her grandmother experience.  This is not a fast-paced novel, but it is still compelling, and I couldn’t put it down.  Highly recommended for fans of well-done contemporary YA.

The Beginning of After will hit bookshelves on September 6, 2011.

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle.  HarperTeen: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

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