Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down

Summary: The lives of four teenagers are capsized by a shocking school shooting and its aftermath in this powerful debut novel, a coming-of-age story with the haunting power of Station Eleven and the bittersweet poignancy of Everything I Never Told You.

As members of the yearbook committee, Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina are eager to capture all the memorable moments of their junior year at Lewis and Clark High School—the plays and football games, dances and fund-drives, teachers and classes that are the epicenter of their teenage lives. But how do you document a horrific tragedy—a deadly school shooting by a classmate?

Struggling to comprehend this cataclysmic event—and propelled by a sense of responsibility to the town, their parents, and their school—these four "lucky" survivors vow to honor the memories of those lost, and also, the memories forgotten in the shadow of violence. But the shooting is only the first inexplicable trauma to rock their small suburban St. Louis town. A series of mysterious house fires have hit the families of the victims one by one, pushing the grieving town to the edge.

Nick, the son of the lead detective investigating the events, plunges into the case on his own, scouring the Internet to uncover what could cause a fire with no evident starting point. As their friend pulls farther away, Matt and Christina battle to save damaged relationships, while Zola fights to keep herself together.

A story of grief, community, and family, of the search for understanding and normalcy in the wake of devastating loss, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down explores profound questions about resiliency, memory, and recovery that brilliantly illuminate the deepest recesses of the human heart. -- William Morrow

A few weeks ago, I reported out that my book club read OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN by Anne Valente for the month of January. It wasn't really a hit with only a few of us even finishing the novel. I have to say that I probably enjoyed the book more than anyone else, and I'm not even sure I'd go so far as to say I loved it. However, I was impressed by quite a few things about this book.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN tells the story of four teenagers whose lives are forever changed when a school shooting takes place at their high school. Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina are all good friends and members of the yearbook staff, and they were hoping for a memorable junior year at their high school -- one that they could record in the yearbook. Little did they know that they would not only be struggling to cover a horrific event but also struggling to even make sense of what they saw.

The local community is distraught over the unnecessary violence, but things take an unusual twist when unexplained fires start breaking out. What's even more sad is that these fires are occurring in the homes of the families who lost children in the school shooting. And to make things even more disturbing, there are no remains of the families' bodies.

Nick, the son of the detective investigating the fires, isn't happy with the lack of explanation from the police, so he decides to begin his own investigation. His other friends are similarly upset about the events, and the foursome begins to pull away from each other. Two of the kids are trying to make sense of their relationships with their significant others, while one is just trying to make sense of her own life.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN is an extremely sad book that explores both community as well as individual grief. As I read this novel, I admit I was a bit surprised by just how gut wrenching this story was. I felt as if the author truly captured the essence of loss and mourning, but I'm not sure I'd seek out such a depressing story again.Having said that, there were signs of resilience in the story. Granted there weren't a lot, but there were some signs of hope in the four children.

I thought Ms. Valente did an excellent job of bringing the four main characters to life. I found them to be very realistic; and as a mom to a teenage daughter, my heart broke for each of them. Of course, they were dealing with the unthinkable, but they also were dealing with normal teenage feelings. Matt, who was gay, was trying to work through a relationship with another boy who wasn't as comfortable with his sexuality. And Christina was trying to handle the breakup with her longtime boyfriend. I felt as if many of the scenes about these kids were very genuine and well written.

One thing that I did have issues with was the ending. I wasn't alone with this feeling. I don't want to give too much away, but the ending was kind of out there for me. I think it was even more shocking because the rest of the book was so literal about the grief of the children and the community. I totally understand what the author was trying to do with the fires and the destruction. I'm just not sure I appreciated it.

OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN was an interesting book club pick. I think our discussion would have definitely benefited from more of our members reading this novel... even if they didn't appreciate it. I thought the various characters were interesting to analyze; and of course, the themes of grief and loss are worthy of some discussion. Some other topics you might want to discuss include parent/child relationships, first loves, sexuality, self-acceptance, and more!

Overall, I did appreciate OUR HEARTS WILL BURN US DOWN. I recommend it to fans of literary fiction and those readers who are interested in stories about loss.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

I'm not sure I could handle this one. It sounds heartbreaking.

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine said...

This sounds so sad. I'm definitely not in a place where I want to read sad books right now - the real world is bringing me down enough. Great review though!