Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves" by James Han Mattson

Social media has made it possible for us to connect with people from all phases of our lives, all over the world. Sadly, it has also made it easier for people to bully, ridicule, criticize, gossip, and humiliate. No matter how many connections we may have, are these true relationships? Will the people with whom we share photos, pithy sayings, humorous videos, and casual greetings actually be there to help us in our time of need?

These are questions James Han Mattson addresses in his immensely current, poignant new novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves.

Ricky Graves was a teenager growing up in a small town in New Hampshire. He often felt disconnected from his peers, his older sister moved away to pursue her own life, and his mother was often emotionally distracted and vacant. He wondered whether he'd ever find someone to understand him and feel the same way he did. One night, tired of being embarrassed and ostracized by his peers, he kills himself and another classmate, and shoots another.

Five months after the incident, the town's residents are still reeling and searching for answers. Ricky's older sister Alyssa returns to town to confront her mother about Ricky's death, at the same time dealing with her own guilt about being so detached from Ricky for so long. But Alyssa has her own issues, her own demons to confront.

"But I suppose death does weird things to your memory, makes you think of the person in a way that's better than the person actually was."

This book shifts back and forth between the events leading up to the shooting and the aftermath, and is told in first-person accounts, emails, and chat-room transcripts. Ricky's story is pieced together by the perspectives of a number of people—Mark, the one survivor of the shooting, who is haunted by his guilt and his visions of Ricky's spirit; Corky, Alyssa's ex-boyfriend, who once was Ricky's camp counselor, and wonders whether he missed some of the signs of what might happen down the line; Claire, one of Ricky's classmates, who vacillates between her own guilt and her misplaced desire to avenge those who caused it; and Jeremy, who inadvertently became Ricky's confidante when they chatted online, but he had no idea how troubled Ricky was.

I can't say I enjoyed this book, but it was very affecting and thought-provoking. Sadly, what happened to Ricky and how he reacted has become all too common in today's world. Unfortunately, I found most of the characters pretty unlikable, and one plot thread in particular had me concerned Mattson was going to take the book from the poignant to the ridiculous. (Luckily, it didn't quite go there.) Some of the plot threads felt unresolved or too pat for me as well.

All too often I wonder about social media's affect on society and our interpersonal relationships, and I read far too much about those being bullied online. The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves will definitely get you thinking in the same regard, and make you wonder just how many kids are facing the same feelings Ricky did, hopefully without the same results.

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