Sunday, July 2, 2017

Book Review: "Aftercare Instructions" by Bonnie Pipkin

Sometimes a character, and by extension, a book, wears its heart on its sleeve. You just can't help but be moved by what the author puts their character through, and you think about what it might be like for those actually dealing with these situations. Such was the case for me with Bonnie Pipkin's wonderful new book, Aftercare Instructions. I found it thanks to an advertisement on Goodreads, and I don't think I'll get it out of my head anytime soon.

"Sometimes you make a choice that can save your life. You might make your choice for one reason, before the real reason even becomes clear. Like this morning when I refused the sedation. The reason was because I wanted to feel it. I wanted to feel my choice as it left my body. I didn't know it would actually make all the difference in the world when my one, and only one, escort bailed mid-procedure, and I found out by walking into the waiting room, scanning a sea of hopeful eyes, and finding absolutely nowhere safe or familiar to land. In that moment, I was thrown into the deep, deep water. And in the deep, deep water, there is no way to breathe. Yet somehow, something propels you forward. Survival mode, I think it's called."

Seventeen-year-old Genesis Johnson has been struggling for some time. Her life was turned upside down when her actor and playwright father (and drug addict) died of a heroin overdose, and her mother has never been able to get back to reality. Genesis finds herself caring for her mother instead of vice-versa, after a problem with one of her prescriptions (it wasn't a suicide attempt) lands her in the hospital, and causes Gen's grandparents to take custody of her younger sister. Gen is just trying to get by the best she can.

When her classmate, Peter Sage, takes an interest in her, she doesn't know what to do. This is the first time in her life she's really been excited about someone, but she is so afraid to let her guard down. She knows that Peter's ultra-religious mother disapproves of Gen and her family, especially when the truth about how her father died becomes public. She warns Peter that her emotional baggage will be too much for him to handle, but he convinces her that loving a person means loving everything about him, so she lets herself fall. Hard.

But when Gen becomes pregnant unexpectedly, the difference in her and Peter's worlds becomes abundantly clear. Although they agree that her getting an abortion is the only right choice, it causes friction in their relationship, and she promises not to tell anyone else their secret. When Peter abandons her at the abortion clinic during her procedure, she feels utterly betrayed, and starts to question all of the things they said to one another and the promises they made.

"Now that he's gone, I know nothing has healed under the patchwork job he did. There aren't any instructions anywhere on what to do when your dad dies like he did and then your boyfriend leaves you at Planned Parenthood while you're getting an abortion."

How do you find the strength to keep going when all you want to do is curl into a ball and retreat from the world? How do you keep helping those who depend on you and not shut out those who care about you? But perhaps most importantly, how do you realize that as much as you can think of nothing except your own crises, your own pain, you need to realize that others around you have their own issues, and want you to help them and understand them as they do the same for you?

Aftercare Instructions demonstrates that just because your life may seem as if it is falling apart, there's only so much you can push people away and mistreat them before they abandon you when you need them most, even if you can't focus on anything but your own problems. It's a book about coming to terms with a painful legacy we may have had nothing to do with, but realizing that it doesn't give you carte blanche to inflict pain on others or hurt others. It's also a book about finding the strength to let go of your burdens and try again, perhaps not full steam ahead, but slowly, gingerly, until you can stand on your own.

I really liked this book, even though Gen wasn't always the most sympathetic character. Pipkin's storytelling is unique, as she juxtaposes chapters dealing with Gen's current situation, with scenes from a play which portray the evolution of her relationship with Peter and the crises they face. This is one of those books where you wonder how no adults really caught on to everything that was going on, but given Gen's family situation, it isn't surprising.

There is a lot of angst in this book, but it's not melodramatic, or overly angsty, like many YA books are. Sure, many people might not think that the crisis of first love is that big of a deal, but given everything else in the book, you can understand why. Ultimately, this isn't a book for everyone, especially if you're bothered by issues like abortion and underage drinking, but this is a moving, thought-provoking, well-written story, once again proving the quality of YA fiction out there today.

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