Book: “When I Am Through With You” by Stephanie Kuehn
Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, August 1st, 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC at ALA thanks to the publisher.
Book Description: “This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not. Not for any of it.”
Ben Gibson is many things, but he’s not sorry and he’s not a liar. He will tell you exactly about what happened on what started as a simple school camping trip in the mountains. About who lived and who died. About who killed and who had the best of intentions. But he’s going to tell you in his own time. Because after what happened on that mountain, time is the one thing he has plenty of.
Review: I am always on the lookout for well done and legitimately suspenseful YA thriller fiction. While sometimes it’s well written and holds my attention, there are other times that the characters are too trope-ridden and the plot is too spoonfed to the reader, as if teens couldn’t possibly stomach a bit of nuance once in awhile. This is why I thank my lucky stars for Stephanie Kuehn, as she is one of the consistently shining stars of the genre when it comes to writing it for teens. I have loved her ever since I read her book “Charm and Strange”, and every book she’s written since has pleased me and sated my need for cerebral and dark themes with complex and damaged characters. Because boy, do I LOVE complex and damaged characters, and no I’m not sorry about it.
Our complex and damaged character this time is Ben Gibson, a migraine-riddled teen who lives with an addict mother who resents him and has no hope of ever leaving his small California town. True, he has a girlfriend named Rose, but she is a bit manipulative and has big dreams of college, and a life that’s on the other side of the tracks. Ben is our narrator, and while he does sort of fit the mold of unreliable, he also is incredibly honest, so the reader is left not sure if what he’s saying is true, but knows he believes that it is. While Ben has accepted that his life is pretty much going to be stuck park and not deviate from it’s current path, he still tries to make those around him happy, even if it’s to his detriment. Be it trying to please Rose, or striking a deal with his teacher Mr. Howe to become a wilderness guide for a modest fee so that he can support his mother, Ben is both a doormat and a knight in shining armor for those who don’t want saving. Kuehn slowly peels back the layers to show just why Ben is like this, and his added dimensions and complexity make him all the more interesting, and yet slightly uncomfortable, to follow.
The wilderness survival story also went above and beyond expectations. I had expected one way that it was going to go, but then it went in a whole different way than I anticipated. I don’t want to give much away, but I will say that Kuehn doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to portraying a bunch of multi-faceted, and pretty realistic, teenagers who make trouble for themselves and don’t know how to react when it blows up in their faces. The group is filled with a few different tropes, the artsy and mysterious girl, the troublemakers, the emo snob (who also happens to be Rose’s twin brother), the sporty girl, but while they all have their niches to fill, Kuehn gives all of them their due and fleshes most of them out. It would be easy to keep them in the lines of their various stereotypes, but instead we kind of get to see the perspectives of a good number of them and that makes them a bit messier and also sympathetic to a degree. Along with being unafraid to try and draw complexity from these kids, Kuehn is also unafraid to be frank and honest in depictions of violence and sexuality. The violence and the consequences of the violence are upsetting and appropriately gory, but it never feels like it’s being written just for the sake of shocking the reader. She seamlessly walks the line between exploitative and realistic, and while some of it made me cringe, it wasn’t because I felt like a voyeur to something gross. She also does a good job of portraying sex and sexuality in a number of ways, from a couple of momentary sex scenes to brief portrayals of fleeting intimacy between lovers. I know that some people would probably be uncomfortable with the sex in this book, and while even I was like ‘whoa’ during one scene in particular, I think that Kuehn clearly gives her readers credit and thinks that they can handle it. If they can handle the violence, they can certainly handle the sex.
I think that for me the one problem I was was a final twist that didn’t feel like it really fit in too well. I understood the thought behind it and while it was set up pretty well, ultimately I didn’t really feel that it added much to the story overall. But given that everything else was so well done I wasn’t too upset about it, and was far more willing to accept it.
And it wouldn’t be a Stephanie Kuehn book if there wasn’t a whole lot of tragedy. I just want to put that out there because 1) fair warning, and 2) I love that Kuehn is more than willing to pile it on, and does so in a way that never feels melodramatic. I love melodrama, but the fact that this ISN’T melodrama makes it all the more tragic.
If you haven’t already picked up books by Stephanie Kuehn, “When I Am Through With You” would be a good place to start. If you like dark and suspenseful, and super honest, thrillers, I implore you to check out her entire body of work. You will not be disappointed.
Rating 8: Kuehn once again delivers a dark and suspenseful book that takes the YA genre above and beyond the usual expectations.
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