Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review: "Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl

What a fantastic, crazy ride this book took me on!

As much as I hate comparing books, Neverworld Wake felt like a slightly-less-sciency Dark Matter (see my review) with a YA twist. There's definitely more angst and melodrama here, but with the twists and turns, the mystery-within-a-mystery, I really found it pretty spectacular.

When Beatrice was a student at the tony Darrow-Harker School a little over a year ago, she and her friends had their own little world. Even though she was on scholarship, not privileged like some of her friends, she somehow gained entry into the elite group, the cool, popular, beautiful people. And then everything changed. One night, her boyfriend Jim, a musical genius and the one member of the group that everyone was a little in love with, died mysteriously. The authorities ruled it a suicide, but Beatrice and her friends couldn't understand what would have driven Jim to kill himself.

After Jim's death, Beatrice left Darrow-Harker and her friends behind, trying to process her grief and move on with her life. She finishes her first year at college, and plans to do nothing more than help her parents run their cafe and ice cream parlor in her small Rhode Island hometown. And then she gets a text from her friend Whitley, someone she hasn't heard from in over a year. Whitley invites Beatrice up to her family's ancient home, which served as a headquarters for the group during high school. While she's afraid to drudge up her old feelings, what Beatrice wants more than anything is answers to what happened to Jim, so much to her parents' chagrin, she heads up to see her friends.

"Friendship, when it runs deep, blinds you to the outside world. It's your exclusive country with sealed borders, unfair distribution of green cards, rich culture no foreigner could understand. To be cut off from them, exiled by my own volition as I had been for the past year, felt cheap and unsettled, a temporary existence of suitcases, rented rooms, and roads I didn't know."

Seeing her friends again feels like no time has passed, but at the same time like they live in separate worlds. Beatrice feels Jim's loss acutely, feels like the dynamics of the group have changed inexorably. As much as she wants to demand answers, she goes along with their plans, which involve copious amounts of alcohol and loud music at a club. She vows to head home to her parents' in the morning. And then there is a knock at the door, a mysterious old man on the doorstep. What he has to say blows their minds.

"You're all nearly dead. Wedged between life and death. Time for you has become snagged on a splinter, forming a closed-circuited potentiality called a Neverworld Wake."

Essentially, they're going to live the same loop of time, over and over again. But there's only one way out: during the last three minutes of every wake (or loop), each member of the group must vote on the one person who will survive. Everyone else will move on to "true death." The decision must be unanimous, and until they come to a consensus, the loop will play itself out endlessly, if not forever.

As each individual tries to make sense of the reality they now find themselves in, they ultimately understand the only choice they really have is to convince the others they're the one who deserves to survive. But before that decision can be broached, they decide they should try and find out the truth about Jim's death. Of course, knowing whom to trust—and trying to uncover secrets thought buried—could have dangerous consequences, even if their sense of time is skewed. Beatrice has to decide if finding out the truth is worth the pain she may sustain.

There's a lot more to the story but it's best left to discover on your own. Suffice it to say that Marisha Pessl, whose previous books, Special Topics in Calamity Physics and the incredible Night Film (see my review), utterly dazzled me, has once again proven that her talent knows no bounds. Some weren't as enthusiastic about this book, in part because I think they expected the Pessl of Night Film and/or aren't fans of YA like I am. But I loved every twisty, confusing, melodramatic second of this book.

We've certainly seen stories like this hundreds of times before, where our memories are tested and we discover our friends might not always have been the loyal, amazing people we imagined them to be. But in Pessl's hands, this story takes on new life. Yes, the whole concept of time and the Neverworld Wake are present, which obviously requires the suspension of disbelief, but there's so much more to this—the flush of young love, the need to create, coping with loss, and the things we do for the strangest of reasons. There's a poignancy to this book even as it veers into The Secret History territory, and even a little bit of the movie Groundhog Day.

This won't be a book for everyone, but here's what I know: I would willingly read anything Marisha Pessl writes. (Keep me in mind if you need a test audience!) But seriously, even if this book doesn't appeal to you, give one of her other books a shot. This is an author of immense talent, once whose stories are at once larger than life and shockingly intimate.

"We swear we see each other, but all we are ever able to make out is a tiny porthole view of an ocean. We think we remember the past as it was, but our memories are as fantastic and flimsy as dreams. It's so easy to hate the pretty one, worship the genius, love the rock star, trust the good girl. That's never their only story. We are all anthologies. We are each thousands of pages long, filled with fairy tales and poetry, mysteries and tragedy, forgotten stories in the back no one will ever read."

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