Between by Jessica Warman
Liz Valchar wakes up in the middle of the night on her 18th birthday on her parents’ boat, and finds her friends all asleep. It’s peaceful, it’s serene. She’s happy to be sharing this special day with them. When Liz goes outside to get some air, to her horror, she discovers a body in the water, slapping noisily against the boat. Her body.
The opening scene of Between sucks you in and doesn’t really let go. Events only go downhill from there–the more I read, the more I found myself cringing, and addictively turning the page for more. On the dock near her body, Liz meets a former classmate, Alex, who died the prior year in a hit-and-run accident. He seems to be in the same limbo, and it’s clear they both need to uncover the truth behind their deaths before they can move on. Liz is sure she just fell into the water. She’d been fainting a lot, and had been drinking on the boat, so it must have been an accident. None of her friends would do this to her, right?
Liz goes from a sort of nubile rebirth, only remembering the good things about herself and her friends, to gradually unearthing who she really was. And, surprise!, it isn’t a pretty picture. There are two big reveals–I definitely saw one of them coming, and the other one I suspected. However, knowing what was coming didn’t diminish the impact of the reveals, and when all was said and done, I felt like the story had struck a chord within me, in much the same wayBefore I Fall did.
I love tales of uncovering the truth about your life in the afterlife, provided they end on a life-affirming note, which this does. They pound the message home that every day could be your last, so make this one count, and don’t let other people dictate your actions. As you realize Liz needs to redeem herself in some way, you deeply hope for it.
5 Reasons to go Between with Liz
1. You’ll HATE the main characters, and LOVE it
I hated Liz. Really hated her. The more I found out about her life, the more this ghostly “between” version of herself remembers, the more I wanted to induct her into my “Characters Who Deserve Whatever Evil Befalls Them” club.
Her friends weren’t much better. Mera and Topher are a vapid, vain couple, utterly wrapped up in each other (even reading about their PDA and their bilious matching clothes made me want to gag), and uncaring of anyone outside of their twosome. Her boyfriend Richie is a drug dealing honor student, but that’s not actually the worst part. He’s been harboring a secret or two, that we, via Liz, only find out about after her funeral. Caroline is harmless enough, but she’s part of the silent-tongued cruel class that contributes to so much bullying in this book, and Liz comes to understand, with Alex’s help, how dangerous saying nothing can be.
The thing is, you’re not really supposed to like any of the characters. It is a cautionary tale for sure, and those rarely come in the hands of angelic protagonists, or even sympathetic ones. You’re meant to chew your lip and rage against Liz, her friends, her sister Josie, and even her batty stepmother Nicole, and Liz’s father. I did find shreds of humanity in nearly all of them, and found some redemption for the worst of them at the end. But overall I will look back on most of these characters with derision, and consider it a huge success of the author’s prowess in drawing them well enough for me to CARE to hate them so much.
2. Not-so-sweet high school sweethearts
Richie and Liz are the cliched high school sweethearts 4 EVA at first. Everything is SO perfect, SO sparkly, SO….meant to be…..until she dies. Then the truth comes out. I really hate unrealistic relationship portrayals, so it was very refreshing to see the secret, complicated goings-on in a “perfect” relationship, and to actually feel as though there was still something salvageable in the mealy beneath-the-surface mess. Both Richie and Liz have been disloyal, dishonest, and have failed to communicate as they should have–had they done so Liz might still be alive. But there was an undercurrent of true, impenetrable love, in the way Liz connects to Richie after her death, and in the way he clings to her memory, even while finding comfort in her stepsister’s arms. Love and life are complicated, but the feelings Richie and Liz have for each other are real, messy, and ultimately more believable and stronger than so many insta-love YA relationships of late.
3. Mean Girl Rehab
Liz is pretty, popular, rich, and has never had any real problems, save for the death of her mother when she was nine. (And the fact that the entire town whispers about whether her step-sister Josie is really her half-sister.)
There is no stronger medicine for a high school mean girl than having to walk a mile in the shoes of someone lower on the social food chain–and that’s just what Liz is forced to do in this “between” with Alex. She is forced to face the impact she and her friends had on the lives of her fellow students, and even the impact she had on her friends and family. Whether you’re a mean girl or a victim, or anywhere in between, you’ll find a small piece of yourself in those cafeteria flashbacks, and you may not like what you see.
4. Realistically-portrayed mental illness
Liz’s mother was anorexic, and it eventually led to her death. Through her flashbacks, we see Liz has been indoctrinated into this illness. The memories, one of which features her mother quizzing a nine-year old Liz over the fat content of a scoop of peanut butter, are quite chilling.
We see that it’s not always a desire to be pretty and perfect that can lead to eating disorders. The triggers and spiderweb of reasons behind them can be so much greater than the shallow empty reasons most people attribute to these diseases. For Liz, it’s about control, and trying to feel sane and normal under duress, and this brand of self-immolation is an easily worn-in path, handed down like a legacy, and all too easy to follow.
5. Drug & Alcohol PSA Attack
Ok, normally I don’t like to be slammed over the head with anti-drug and alcohol messages, but in this case, I think I’d LIKE the reminder. Alcohol and drugs are the stepping stones, if not the full cause of both deaths in this book. They also account for quite a few problems for the living left behind. Liz’s parents are left wondering if only they’d been around more, supervised a little better, if tragedy could have been avoided. I wanted to scream, “um, YEAH!” I feel like we all have these messages branded on our brains during school, but it’s a welcome reminder to see the full fallout of these decisions play out in fiction, rather than in the real world.