Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Or a better version of yourself? I have. Especially when I’ve felt alienated or depressed. Especially when I was a teen. Which is why I can relate so well to Trisha Leaver’s The Secrets We Keep and Jen Brooks’s In a World Just Right. Both novels explore what happens when their grieving narrators decide to create alternative selves that they believe are better than their real selves.
The Secrets We Keep begins in medias res with an intriguing prologue. Ella wears her twin sister Maddy’s clothes and sleeps in her bed. Ella has discarded her old life, but we don’t know why. All we know is that Maddy has been keeping secrets. The opening chapters go back in time to solve a few of the mysteries hinted at in the prologue: Ella’s complicated relationship with her twin, Maddy’s death, and Ella’s choice to toss aside her old life and assume Maddy’s identity.
After a heated argument, Ella and Maddy are in a car crash and Maddy is killed. When Ella wakes up in the hospital, everyone thinks she’s Maddy. Consumed with survivor’s guilt and convinced that her parents love Maddy more, Ella decides to become her twin. She abandons her quiet, studious, artistic life, where she was bullied by Maddy’s clique and Josh was her only friend, for Maddy’s outgoing, confident and popular life, with a perfect boyfriend who loves her.
But being Maddy is not as easy as wearing her sister’s skinny jeans. She’s supposed to stop spending time with Josh, do poorly in school, hang out with the mean girls she can’t stand, and pretend to be in love with Maddy’s boyfriend Alex who is overly protective and a bit creepy. On top of that, Ella realizes that Maddy has been harboring dark secrets of her own, and Maddy may not be the better twin after all.
It’s easy to feel frustrated with Ella for giving up her real life, but her behavior is understandable. She and Maddy used to share everything (even a diary). Although her choice to pretend to be Maddy seemed right at first, it becomes increasingly wrong. Being Maddy is much more complicated and less desirable than she ever imagined. Just how far will she go with her deception? Will she give up Ella’s dreams so that Maddy can live? Was Maddy really loved more than Ella? Is it ever too late to tell the truth?
Jen Brooks’s In a World Just Right also raises challenging questions about what is real and what is true when a high school senior has the ability to actually create alternative worlds. Ever since a plane crash left Jonathan’s parents and sister dead and him with disfiguring scars, he has coped with the real world by escaping to other worlds where he can be better versions of himself: a superhero saving the earth from aliens and a chick magnet at a dance club.
In his real world, he is a loner. He’s in love with Kylie, who ignores him, so he creates a parallel world where he is popular, studious, athletic and, most importantly, Kylie’s boyfriend. Girlfriend Kylie caresses and kisses his scars, looks him directly in the eyes, and loves him dearly. She is the only thing that makes him feel better, even if she is not real.
His alternative Kylie is not enough to make him happy in the real world, however. He can’t help wanting the real Kylie to be in love with him too. When he confuses the real Kylie with his girlfriend Kylie and the real Kylie develops feelings for him, his alternative world starts to unravel. His relationship with the alternative Kylie becomes strained and he questions whether escaping to his alternative world is the better choice. Should he want to live in the real world instead? Is their love real in the fantasy world or just something he created and therefore false? And whose love is more important to him, that of the real Kylie or his alternative Kylie?
Readers will find these books emotionally riveting and imaginative, and I’m excited that Trisha Leaver and Jen Brooks (with Lori Goldstein and Lee Kelly) will be part of the Freshman Fifteens Spring Break Tour. I’ll be live tweeting their events on 4/27, 7PM, at Porter Square Books (Lori’s Launch Party, using the hashtag #BecomingJinn), 5/3, 1:30PM, at the Community House of Hamilton and Wenham (Jen’s Launch Party) and 5/7, 7PM, at Cambridge Public Library Teen Room (for Trivia Night with Boston Teen Author Festival Authors), so please follow Spellbinding Books on Twitter during those dates. Please read my interviews with Jen, Trisha and Lori (date TBD).
Alyssa Raymond is a YA blogger for Coven Book Club and its sister site Spellbinding Books. She thanks Edelweiss, the publishers, and the Boulder Book Store for providing her with digital review copies of these books for review purposes, and her opinions are her own. Please follow Spellbinding Books on Twitter and Tumblr.