Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

This is one of my daughter's favorite books. In fact, it might just be her single favorite book. She gave it to me to read years ago and I set it on my bedside table, reading everything except it. I don't read a lot of YA no matter how cute the premise is. But I decided this year that I wanted to read the few books I have that others have loaned me from time to time and get them back to their rightful owners, starting with this one. And I'm sorry it took me so long to read it. Obviously I am nowhere near the age of the main character but I did my fair share of moving when I was younger, facing a new school, having no friends, and feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place so I could easily relate to this sweet YA romance.

Jessie's life has been completely upended in the past few years. Her father has remarried and uprooted her from Chicago, her best friend, and the comfortable, middle class home that holds all of the memories of life with her mother, who died of cancer two years before the story opens. Now she and her dad live in a mansion with her stepmom and stepbrother, who is also a junior in high school but seems about as thrilled to have her there as she is to be there. She attends an elite private school where everyone looks like California stereotypes to her and she doesn't have any idea how to navigate this new place, home or school, especially without friends. What she does have is someone from school emailing her anonymously, calling themselves Somebody Nobody (SN), and offering to help her figure out school and the people in it. Initially wary of the emails, sure they are going to be a cruel joke, Jessie comes to rely on them, exchanging personal information, including the grief she feels about the loss of her mom and that she doesn't feel she can share with her dad anymore now that he's remarried as well as the smaller grief of having to move and forge a new life, another thing she can't or won't share with her dad. She goes about her daily life, tentatively making friends, developing a crush, and getting a job, while still being homesick for Chicago, desperately missing best friend Scarlett, and pushing more and more for Somebody Nobody to reveal their identity.

Buxbaum has done a fantastic job capturing so many different feelings in this novel. She herself lost her mother at an early age so she knows personally the grief that her main character carries. She's also managed to bring out incredibly real feelings that so many teenagers who have moved feel in their new place. Jessie focuses on the ways in which her new home and school are different from what she loved (and didn't love, but she won't acknowledge that) before, unable or unwilling to see the good or even acknowledge things that are similar to Chicago. She stereotypes the kids around her, lumping them all into what she expects from a very wealthy California school, definitely confirming the frequency illusion when she claims the girls are all thin and blond, which she is not. In addition to the grief of losing her mother and the anger and unhappiness of moving, Buxbaum also lets Jessie experience regular teenage girl emotions as well. Jessie's blindness to who SN clearly is, at least clear to many readers despite the three options Jessie comes up with, is a perfect sign of how regular a kid Jessie is, so wrapped up in the other strong feelings that she can't see for sure what the rest of us can. The emails between SN and Jessie are funny, honest, and emotionally open, especially once they start telling each other three things about themselves in the body of the emails, and their subject lines are fantastic. The ending and reveal are completely predictable but hew so closely to what the reader wants that the predictability is welcomed rather than disappointing. This is a novel with heart, one that tackles hard subjects (bullying, reciprocity in relationships, grief and loss) with grace and compassion but still leaves the reader smiling after the last page is turned.

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