Goodreads: When the Light Went Out
Publish date: 01 June 2019
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary
Do we change or does the world change us? Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise. Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life. But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?
When I picked this up I was expecting an adventurous mystery where a group of friends discover long-held secrets and answers as to what happened in the lead up to the day one of their friends died. While you do get somewhat of an adventure amongst friends, this ended up being less of a mystery and more of a look into how grief affects youth.
When the Albany Street kids lose their group leader Marley in an accidental shooting one summer day, they’re all deeply affected but none more so than Olivia and Nick; Olivia because she idolized Marley and watched the shooting happen, and Nick because he was the one who pulled the trigger. After that day, they all drift away from Olivia and Nick is shunned in the community. But on the fifth year deathiversary, a plan is set into motion by Marley’s spirit via Olivia and the group comes back together to undertake one last adventure and to understand what really happened the day Marley died.
Honestly, I was deeply confused for a majority of the book, especially at the start. The writing felt very jumbled up and to me it read like stream of consciousness, without any clear demarcation of where one thought ended and another began. I don’t know if there was meant to be any magical realism elements in the story as well, especially when Marley was referred to in basically everything — in the sky, the wind, the ground, the air– and since I’m not such a big fan of magical realism, this only served to add to my confusion. The story started to get a bit more clear for me at about the 80% mark, and the last 20% of the book is the reason why I’m giving this book a 3.5 star rating because it resolves a lot of the irritation I felt while reading. Olivia was so young when Marley died in front of her, and the abandonment by her friends, and the rigid structure that the parents’ enforced after her death, only served to isolate Olivia and make her retreat into her own world, one where Marley was guiding her every move; one where she embraced and became Marley. There was a twist towards the end of the book that was a bit of an “aha!” moment when you realized just how affected Olivia has been all these years. I thought this story painted a poignant picture of how grief can really affect a person when they experience it at such a young age.
While I actually didn’t like many of the characters at the start of the novel, some of them really did grow on me, while others remained somewhat side characters (even though they were part of the friendship group) because they didn’t get a lot of ‘page time’ or growth. I have to say that my least favorite character was actually Olivia. She was always acting so competitive and felt this desperate need to always be seen as the person who comes up with great ideas and who’s the leader and it just came off as very irritating and immature. Yes, she’s only 16 in the present day, but I found this part of her personality very annoying. I really liked Nick, although I wish that we had learned more about him throughout the novel, and not as just the person who accidentally fired the gun all those years ago, and not as the boy who Olivia had a crush on. I think it would have been interesting to have some chapters from his PoV seeing as how his presence essentially played such a big role in what happened.
Overall, this wasn’t what I was expecting, and although the narrative was confusing for the most part, it was a fairly easy read (I finished it in 1.5 days).
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the free copy in exchange for an honest review. Have you read it or is it on your TBR?