Sunday, November 29, 2020

Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

How would you live your life differently if you knew the day you were going to die? Would you want to know that it's your last day or would you prefer to stay in the dark? We all have a date out there in the future that will be our last and countless people, songs, movies, and books exhort us to live each day as if this day is it. And we should, because we truly never know. In Adam Silvera's YA novel, They Both Die at the End, the world has the technology to warn people that it is their last day, a scary but also freeing prospect, one that allows the dying to craft the sort of final day they want.

Just after midnight, eighteen year old Mateo gets his phone call from Death-Cast informing him that he's going to die today. Mateo lives with his father, his mother having died when he was born. But his father isn't around to help the introverted and fearful Mateo face his end because his father is in the hospital in a coma. So he'll have to be brave enough on his own. Seventeen year old, foster child Rufus also gets his phone call from Death-Cast. He's in the middle of beating his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend to a pulp when the call comes in so it's a surprise that he gets the call rather than the bleeding and battered boyfriend. He intends to celebrate the imminent end of his life with his close friends, fellow fosters called the Plutos, until circumstances send him fleeing the foster home away from his friends. It is at this point that Mateo and Rufus each turn to an app called Last Friend, where Deckers (those slated to die that day) can reach out to make one last friend and have the experiences they've always wanted. And so these two doomed teenagers spend their day together learning to live.

The chapters go back and forth between Mateo and Rufus with occasional chapters from others interjected. Each of these interjected chapters starts with the information that the main focus of the chapter did not get a call from Death-Cast today because s/he is not going to die today. Mateo and Rufus' chapters are sad enough, as they worry about their deaths and how to get through their day as safely as they can until the end inevitably comes, but the other chapters serve to remind the reader, over and over again, that the boys they're so invested in have no future. It's effective as a reminder and also moves the plot along so that it's not simply two boys having adventures, becoming friends, and learning to trust and love in their last hours. It adds to the plot. The story is heartbreaking but it is leavened by the sweet, if fairly sudden and slightly unbelievable, romance and the honest and open way that the boys are living their final day. The reader will be immediately sympathetic to Mateo but will have to grow to feel that way towards Rufus. They are very different characters, both with agonizing back stories, who come to understand their own value to themselves and to each other. Silvera has done a fantastic job of making connections between his cast of characters, weaving each life through the others, showing how we are all connected, all human. It's the butterfly effect in novel form.

The mechanism behind Death-Cast isn't explained in the story, but I'm not certain that it needs to be. The only thing that matters is that the boys are going to die and they know it. They are necessarily given a very long final day but that sometimes means that the plot drags in places. The you only live once message is often repeated as the story goes on, especially as Mateo and Rufus remind themselves that the clock is ticking and a little more subtlety in that would perhaps have not been amiss. The concept is a fascinating one and although it didn't leave me as emotional as I'd have expected, Silvera has written an engaging and interesting novel. If you're like me, in the end, rather than this being a tear-jerker, it'll leave your heart feeling bruised. And when you close the book the final time, you will understand the comment made to the boys again and again, "Sorry to lose you" because you'll be sorry to lose these characters too.

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