Author: Margie Gelbwasser
Genre: Contemporary YA
Release date: March 8, 2012
Challenge: Completely Contemporary Challenge
Summary: Every summer, hidden away in a lakeside community in upstate New York, four teens leave behind their old identities…and escape from their everyday lives.
Yet back in Philadelphia during the school year, Alex cannot suppress his anger at his father (who killed himself), his mother (whom he blames for it), and the girls who give it up too easily. His younger brother, Kyle, is angry too—at his abusive brother, and at their mother who doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, Katie plays the role of Miss Perfect while trying to forget the nightmare that changed her life. But Julie, her younger sister, sees Katie only as everything she’s not. And their mother will never let Julie forget it.
Up at the lake, they can be anything, anyone. Free. But then Katie’s secret gets out, forcing each of them to face reality—before it tears them to pieces.
Guys, I’m not going to pull any punches with you. PIECES OF US by Margie Gelbwasser is probably one of the darkest, most troubling books I’ve read in a long time. It’s not a happy book. It’s not an easy book. There’s not much in it–plot, characters–that’s likable. But I hesitate to say that it was bad because I don’t want you guys to assume that I mean it was bad in the sense that it was badly written or poorly constructed. Honestly, it was the opposite of that. No, it was bad in the sense that the story itself is pretty awful and infuriating, and the characters are seriously flawed in the most disturbing way. PIECES OF US gave me all kinds of THOUGHTS and FEELINGS, guys, and none of them were pleasant.
This is not an easy book to read. At all. Within the first couple of chapters of PIECES OF US, we meet a horribly misogynistic teenage boy (Alex), a mother who is one of the most heinous moms I’ve ever read without being physically violent (that would be Katie and Julie’s mom), and basically a rape (Katie). You know what? Scratch that: It’s a rape. No basically about it. The language is explicit, the material is intense and dark, and some of the characters are downright impossible to like. I didn’t enjoy reading Margie Gelbwasser’s book very much at all, but I finished it because I knew that it brought up lots of things that are worth talking about, and I was somehow invested in the stories of some of the characters. ONLY SOME, though. Because the others could get hit by a bus tomorrow and I’d be sad that someone died, but I don’t know that I’d be sad that it was THEM. (So, I didn’t anticipate that coming out of my head just now. Seriously. I don’t go around flinging those kind of thoughts lightly, even for fake characters. But Alex and Katie and Julie’s mom are just awful. I told you. BAD FEELINGS.)
Since I brought him up and he’s one of the major characters in PIECES OF US, I have some venting to do about Alex. He’s one of the WORST guys I’ve ever read about. I don’t mean that he was badly written because that’s not true. I mean that, if he was real, he would be a horrible person. He’s hateful, misogynistic, arrogant, and DAMAGED. He expects girls to BEG for sex and do what he says and put up with it when he treats them like horse shit because they’re all sluts, like he tells them, and sluts don’t have any worth as human beings. He has no feelings about any of it, except maybe utter hate for his mom, whom he blames for his father’s leaving the family and committing suicide. Alex is a stone-cold douchebag. Except something is definitely not right with him. There’s a switch in his head that is turned off. I wish that made a difference in my opinion of him, but it doesn’t.
The other characters in Margie Gelbwasser’s book are no easier to read about. Alex’s brother, Kyle, is angry and closed off and emotionally effed up (his chapters are told in the second person, a really telling device). Katie is dealing with the aftermath of her rape, and her story is really the toughest to read. It’s just…terribly sad and infuriating, both because of what she’s dealing with and because she isn’t the easiest person to respect (this has NOTHING to do with her rape, which is obviously devastating to her and to the reader). Her sister, Julie, is kind of a basket-case who feels the brunt of her mother’s disapproval. Seriously, there isn’t one single character in PIECES OF US who doesn’t need MAD THERAPY. Worst part? As the story unfolds, nothing really improves for anyone. SAD FACE.
PIECES OF US made me feel ICKY. Gross all over. I don’t WANT to read about rape. I don’t WANT to read about a sick kid who likes to dominate the girls he has sex with to such a degree that he ASSUMES their consent and FORCES them to let his brother touch them against HIS will. I don’t WANT to read about an emotionally and psychologically abusive mother who can’t deal with how much her life has let her down so she takes it out on her kids. But I did. I didn’t enjoy it, though. I’m not sure how this makes me feel about anything with any specificity–the book, myself. But I can tell you that it doesn’t make me feel good.
PIECES OF US by Margie Gelbwasser was unsettling to me because it forced me to see the underbelly of teenagers with secretly screwy lives and families. At one point, Katie is being forced to have sex with the boys who raped her a second time (yes, you read this correctly), and she tells us that the one who had been her boyfriend (I CANNOT EVEN TYPE HIS NAME, the DOUCHEBAG) made her look him in the eye the whole time. That’s what this book was like for me. It forced me to stare something REAL but HORRIBLE in the face and wouldn’t let me look away. Not surprisingly, I hated what I saw. But what an important book to use as an admittedly explicit starting off point for pointed, pivotal discussions about serious issues: rape, sexual harassment, bullying, emotional and psychological abuse, victim blaming, depression, broken families. That is, if you can manage to wade through the griminess and get to the end, which is barely an improvement in terms of tone. SIGH. I can’t really talk about PIECES OF US anymore, guys. It’s bringing me down. If you do ever read it, though, I’d love to hear what you think.