If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.
Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.
Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.
Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.
As some of you may know, I recently went to the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley and had the best time ever. Now, the thing about book festivals is that they make me want to buy all of the books. Unfortunately, as I am a currently-unemployed college student, buying all of the books would be a terrible idea. Instead, I limited myself to only one book, and as you’ve probably guessed by now, I chose Every Last Word.
I don’t normally buy contemporary books; while I love a good contemporary as much as the next person, my excitement for them tends to not be very long-lasting. However, books about mental illnesses (especially mental illnesses which aren’t as frequently portrayed in stories) are always relevant to my interests, and everyone I knew who had received an advance copy gave it glowing reviews. So I thought, “Why not?”
I do not regret this decision one bit.
First of all, the mental illness aspect was handled very well. I could tell the author had done her research, but at the same time, Sam felt like a character and not just a list of symptoms, you know? OCD was a big part of her life, but it wasn’t her defining aspect, or the only problem she was dealing with. And quite frankly, I’m always happy to see positive depictions of therapy in fiction.
I connected with Sam on several different levels; I had a lot of high school experiences similar to hers. In particular, I was in a spoken word club, and reading about Poet’s Corner made me smile because it reminded me what an open, welcoming environment the club was, and how much fun it was writing poetry and getting my words out without worrying about the quality. Basically, this book made me extremely nostalgic.
I think Sam is a character a lot of readers will be able to relate to on some level, even if they don’t have her exact experience. The author fleshes out the different aspects of Sam’s life, and of Sam herself, in a realistic manner. The resulting journey of self-discovery and friendship is done beautifully and realistically, down to the last word.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the twist at the end. On the one hand, it added an extra explosion to the novel, and the fallout made me very emotional; I also liked what the resolution of the twist revealed about Sam. On the other hand, it felt like something out of a soap opera, and I thought it kind of undermined the nuanced, well-research portrayal of OCD the book had shown up until then. However, I understand why the author made the decision she did, and I appreciate what it brought to the story.
Even though I think the secondary characters still worked with the limited level of development they got, I really would have liked to know more about them. Part of this is my fault, since I went into the book with expectations of found-family feelings, and while I did get them to an extent, they would have been much stronger if I had a clearer idea of who the Poet’s Corner kids were. I also would have liked to see more of Sam’s family.
The characters all felt like people. Everyone at Poet’s Corner, for instance–we don’t know a whole lot about them, but we know enough to see that they have lives of their own, and we see glimpses things going on beneath the surface, just as we do with real people. And we see how they function together–an easy and supportive friendship that makes me smile. Certain details such as throwing paper at anyone who puts themselves down and characters writing food-related poetry just sold it for me.
And Sam’s not-so-great friends, the Crazy Eights–I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of “mean girls” tropes, partly because said mean girls in books often come across as tiresome exaggerated caricatures. This is not the case here at all. The Crazy Eights are mean in ways that actual people are mean–casual hurtful comments, following the rest of the group rather than challenging such comments, constantly twisting the situation so it seems like they’re in the right. Their actions don’t just seem like generic-contemporary-antagonist stuff, and that makes Sam’s struggle between staying with them and breaking free much more real and effective.
And Sam herself? As I said before, she felt very human and relatable. We see different sides of her when she’s around different people, and we watch her reconcile them. She’s done things she’s not proud of, but she’s also compassionate, honest and brave. Her growth is realistic and complicated and takes the time it needs to take. She finds her voice, finds others who accept her, and learns to accept herself.
Even though there’s romance in this book, Sam’s character growth isn’t just based around AJ, the love interest. He’s part of it, but so are her friends, her family, her therapist, and above all, Sam herself. It’s also worth noting that the romance is pretty freaking adorable; while it wasn’t my favorite storyline, it consistently put a smile on my face.
A lot of people have said that this book made them want to write, and…yeah, same. I loved the emphasis on writing as a tool for self-expression and healing and connection, and I appreciate the reminder that your writing doesn’t always have to be the best thing under the sun–you can just let the words come from you and see where they take you.
Fun little detail: Sam has a thing with the number three. She makes playlists with three-word titles. All the chapters in the book have three word titles.
Pick up! This book is moving, well-written, and quite powerful.