**Thank you to Net Galley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review**
WARNING: Book contains underage drinking, drug use, sexual content, and suicidal imagery.
A good chunk of time has passed since I have had the privilege to read a Young Adult novel (though if one is so inclined an argument could be made that this falls into the New Adult genre) that could very well be considered in the drama sub-category. My usual go-to is fantasy or sci-fi, but in order to understand and implement true angst into my own YA WIP, I wanted a little refresher. The synopsis was interesting and I was pretty much hooked right away.
It’s hard to describe the feelings I had as I read To Laugh Well by JC Alaimo. What I thought would play out as a sensitive and informative read on mental illness was really just a book about a boy’s first year in college away from home. Granted there are trials and tribulations that ultimately come to a not so pleasant ending, but on the whole I felt that maybe this book was 60% college experience 30% depression and other mental health concerns.
Now, this is nothing to sneeze at and in reality it’s always good to have books with these experiences expressed and explained from different points of view so as to get a well rounded idea of what to expect if you are in fact a high school student about to take the plunge into college. Seriously, reading some of these types of books is probably a good preparedness tool that you should implement along with all your other steps before entering the world of higher education.
Alex Biden is just such a kid, who we first meet as he is preparing to go away for the first time to college. There are the typical tropes of the single mother who is putting everything into this for her son, the younger sister who will miss him, and the high school sweet heart girlfriend that promises that long distance can work, when every single person on planet Earth knows it won’t.
GOOD POINT: I liked the MC, Alex, as he wasn’t the standard that you get in these types of books. It is hinted at that he has had issues in the past, describing a flash back in which he has a full blown panic attack. Now, this is what I kinda signed up for in picking up this book. I wanted the experiences of someone with these issues. However, in my personal opinion this is far from what I got.
There is no other way to explain what happened to me as a reader at this point other than to say I was disappointed, though that may be coming off a little harsh. As Alex engages in his first few months at college we get little glimpses of his potential anxiety disorder, but nothing that makes it significant to the story. Instead what I got was a constant barrage of unprotected sex, unsafe drug use, binge drinking, and clunky descriptions of a rap music.
Of course I am no prude and understand that what the author put forth could be a definite example of someone’s college experience. Being one that never got to have the “full” college experience I’m not sure how prevalent this experience actually is, but I would hope and like to think it’s not that much of the average college campus populace. But I am willing to be wrong.
Again, we follow Alex as he makes friends, drinks, does drugs, and crushes on the first girl he meets, which becomes increasingly awkward, but never to the point that I think the character does anything wrong. I liked that immensely.
GOOD POINT: Too often we get the young male who is shunned by the girl who is a friend who would be his girlfriend but for some other minute circumstance. For Alex it’s the fact that Julia has a boyfriend. I love that the author handled the awkward moments between the characters well. I like that when Alex makes a big mistake he gets Julia a gift, not to make her change, but to make her happy and win her back as just a friend. This is positive and should be read by everyone.
The first 60% of this book, as I alluded to earlier, is primarily a list of things Alex is doing in college, “And then I went to class, and then I pre-gamed with my roommates, and then I went to a party, and now I’m hungover and going to class” It gets tedious and quite honestly I was hoping something, anything would happen. Initially I felt it would have something to do with Julia as that is played really heavy during this part, but nothing ever really does. In fact once the last 30% of the book takes off, so does Julia.
At about the 60% mark, the “plot twist” if you will, slowly begins when Alex goes on a trip to Washington D.C. as part of a community service outreach program through his college. Initially he was interested solely to get into Julia’s pants, but ultimately ends up wanting to go for the experience. Miraculously his mother is able to afford the trip on top of his already swollen college tuition. (I would go into more detail about how ridiculous Alex’s financial situation is, but there is no answer as to how he affords this trip, plus his tuition, plus food, plus booze, plus cigarettes, plus drugs, there’s just not)
The chaperon on this trip is a philosophy professor, Sofia Cote, whom when we are first introduced you get a creepy cougar vibe off of immediately. There is nothing wrong with an older woman owning herself and being confident, but when that translates into a teacher taking advantage of a vulnerable student, then you’ve gone too far.
Alex and Sofia’s relationship is confusing right from the start. She acts like she’s a student more than a teacher and fails at her profession by not immediately setting up those boundaries. When they return from the trip Alex rearranges his class schedule in order to take one of her classes. It is here, during one of her lectures on…love…that he realizes yes that is what I am feeling for this woman that I have had maybe three interactions with and they only bordered the line of student/teacher relationship.
Throughout this time he is also given a tutoring position within the Philosophy department despite the fact that he is very much a freshman. The only indication I can give as to why this teacher allowed this to occur is so that she could justify their relationship afterward. “You’re so much more mature than other kids your age,” kind of set up.
Another way this teacher manages to manipulate this student into her clutches is when she swings getting him out of required counseling for an incident he caused. I would have to say this was the moment that made me loathe her. Like I hated this character because of who she was as a person. Alex is told at his first counseling session that he may be suffering from severe anxiety and that he is self-medicating, which is so fucking dangerous. Upset by this diagnosis from someone he thinks is an idiot (because he just inherently knows better as an eighteen year old) he runs to Sofia who immediately calls the counseling center, basically tells them they are a bunch of idiots and tells them that Alex won’t be coming to anymore sessions.
And just like that, she removes his lifeline. It was here that I realized that this would not end well, at all.
GOOD POINT: The feelings that took hold of me during this part were so powerful. Even though some things were flawed, the author portrayed a perfect moment of when help is essentially removed from the picture because the person won’t help themselves. He goes to someone who he trusts will get him out of this situation and she does without batting an eye. It was beautiful, it was awful.
Sofia hosts a small reunion of the kids who went on the D.C. trip at her house where through “circumstances” Alex is the last one to leave. Nothing happens, but you just know the fuse has been lit at this point. It doesn’t take long for things to jump to inappropriate fast. Alex ends up staying with the teacher, in her house, for the week of spring break. They barely discuss their situation, opting instead to eat, be drunk, and fuck the entire time without thinking of the consequences until Alex is walking out the door to return to his life as a college studentand her as his teacher.
Things are moving fairly quickly now and as I was reading I was looking at how much was left in the book and I thought it was going to end very abruptly the way it was going. I wasn’t wrong.
Julia goes to Sofia, claiming to be worried about Alex and this makes her see the error of her ways, but not before she has jealously fueled revenge sex with him in her own fucking office!
But lets talk about what and why Julia did what she did. It is stated that Julia felt that Alex was becoming distant, not hanging out with kids his age and the drinking and drugs were consuming him. Alright, point made that the drinking and drugs at this stage were beyond out of control. I mean he gives a presentation drunk (and yet still manages a 4.0 GPA, Shenanigans have been called!)
To claim, however, that he wasn’t hanging out with kids his own age is just down right false. According to the author, he spends most of his time with his roommates and at parties. Granted, it is shown that he feels alone at these events, but Julia wouldn’t know that, she’s not in his head. As far as she knows he is there, he is present. I don’t know what Julia was talking about and can only assume that she was jealous that she was no longer a fixture in his life. To be honest there was no indication that she was trying really hard to change that anyway until that moment.
The fact that this book was all coming from Alex’s POV made it hard to come to terms with what he ultimately decides to do. It was like a secret from himself in order for the reader to not know what was going to happen. If you’re in someone’s head, wouldn’t you be privy to all their thoughts, not just selective ones? We should have been seeing more of the why for his actions, but we don’t and so when Sofia breaks up with him and he cracks (Seriously, this woman should not be teaching kids) we are kind of left with zero closure.
Even though I knew it was coming, there was still a part of me left confused simply by what the author chose to let me see while in Alex’s head. It’s like with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, if the husband was innocent and we were in his head the entire first half of the book, wouldn’t we have known that without a doubt? It makes no sense that the MC would hide these truths…from himself.
Regardless of this, the moment was strong and I admire the author for the way it occurred and how it was written. I would have liked a little afterward to see how his friends handled everything since they were a key factor in a lot of things, but an argument could be had as to why the author chose not to include that.
If you or someone you know is suffering please help them seek help.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
4 Out of 5 Stars
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