I had never heard of this book before seeing it on NetGalley, but there was something about the cover design and title that really stuck out to me. I really don’t know what it was exactly. And the blurb sounded intriguing enough that I decided to go for it. THis s actually probably the first ARC I’ve requested without having already heard of it, or seen a good review for it, somewhere else first. And I am very, very glad I did.
“But in the end, love makes her stay.”
This is the story, obviously, of Venus Black. When we meet her, she’s a straight laced young adult of 13, who gets good grades and is a wonderful older sister to her brother, Leo, who falls somewhere on the Autism spectrum. However, things absolutely fall to pieces after one horrible evening, when Venus commits a crime (a big one). Right after her arrest and right before finding out her 5 years juvenile detention sentence, Leo disappears without a trace. Years later, after Venus’ release, she decides to start over clean and new – planning to create a new identity, move to another state, and leave her mother and the memories that one tragic night and her lost brother behind. However, as she meets new people, including a friendly coworker, a possible romantic prospect and a young girl who reminds her of her own younger self, Venus starts to realize that perhaps a new future isn’t as easy as it sounds. Perhaps she will have the face the past, confront her own anger and guilt, and make some amends before she is able to have that fresh start she’s looking for.
This book is exactly what that blurb says it is. But it was also a lot more than I was expecting and it really got its hooks into me. Venus was such a compelling character. The parts narrated by her, both at 13 and at 19, were convincing and perfectly crafted to her age. She is prickly and defensive and angry and scared and so much more. And it comes through so clearly in her actions and her dialogue, exactly in the frustrating but realistic ways that it would for any lost girl at those ages. Her growth throughout the book is realistic as well – full of repressed feeling and memories, naïve reactions, fearful and spontaneous decisions, but with just enough insight into her thoughts that you can see her efforts to overcome these more difficult parts of her personality and give new methods a chance. It’s slow growth, but it’s there…and that’s real.
The other narrators for the story include Leo himself, Venus’ mother, and Tinker, Tessa and Tony, who play a large role in Leo’s life post-disappearance (I know that’s vague, I’m attempting to avoid spoilers). First, I want to make a blanket statement – with that many voices telling the same story, you’d think some character development details might get lost or under-done. That is not the case here. Each of these voices, their role in the story and the decisions they make are full, three dimensional and very believable and understandable…to the extent that, even when you cringe at a character’s decision or thought process, you can absolutely see where they are coming from. And for all but one (I won’t say who, but I’m guessing it’ll be obvious for all of you as you read), you can sympathize and understand that they are doing what they felt was best under the circumstances. It’s actually, at a few points, so heartbreaking as a reader. Because you cannot see how things can end happily for everyone, but you really want it to since you know why they did what they did. I was super impressed by the author’s abilities on this front. Relatedly, I really enjoyed a few relationship developments in particular, including Tessa and Leo, Venus and Piper, and Venus and her mother. They were just really precisely crafted and I enjoyed watching them progress and deepen.
The one perspective (other than Venus’) I want to specifically call out is Leo’s. I have read a few books written from the perspective of (or about) Autism-spectrum characters. And I cannot truly speak to how any of them do, because I am not in that situation myself, nor I am especially close to anyone that is that I could ask or compare to. But from my limited background knowledge, I have to say that I was very impressed with Leo’s voice. It felt deep, nuanced and illuminating. And it addressed some issues/topics that are not normally covered, either in books or in life, like explaining the meanings of many different interactions, from little things, like the “please”/”thank you” back and forth, all the way to larger things, like feelings of attraction (sexual and emotional). If any readers have recommendations for other books that do this successfully, or even better (perhaps own voices?), please tell me. But it seemed, to me at least, this was well done here.
As far as the plot itself, it’s a simple and straightforward sort of story, pretty much all summed up in the book blurb. But it is the perfect storyline vehicle for a novel that is built around character growth in the way we see it here. And there is, as the book progresses, the growing build towards the denouement we know if coming: what was it that pushed Venus to commit her crime? And how will the circumstances around Leo’s disappearance and future unfold? The increase in tense-ness as the story moves forward pulls us in dynamically but still leaves the focus on the characters.
The one great issue I took with this novel was, unfortunately, the cleanliness of the ending. I mean, I won’t lie, I definitely wanted that ending. I even mentioned that earlier – I wanted it to be, more or less, positive for everyone. But I am just not sure it was that truthful of an ending. And considering the reality in the character growth to that point, the changes in their relationships with each other, and everything else the author did to make sure a “truthful” story was told…it just didn’t completely fit. Maybe I’m wrong and cynical. And since it didn’t necessarily happen all of a sudden, there is definitely a chance that time allowed for enough adjustment/acceptance to make it possible. And there are some special situations, like Leo’s personality, that make this more possible than it might otherwise be. But I just am not sure this ending is all that likely, considering the way life works.
All in all though, I was really blown away by how good this book was. Venus is such dynamic character, with an incredibly sad, but ultimately hopeful, story. This is a book about what family is, what support from family looks like, and how possible it is to create and repair some very difficult relationships. As a reader, there is definitely some dread that piles on while reading, but there is also a lot of anticipation for a more positive ending than start for these characters that become tangible as you read.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Dial Press, for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.