Why I wanted to read it: This is one of those that I always saw on display at Barnes and Nobles for the longest time, like The Fault in Our Stars, but would pick up and put down again and again. On a visit to the lovely, independent Blue Willow Bookshop in west Houston quite some time ago, I purchased an autographed copy, but it sat in my car for weeks and weeks. It finally made it into the house, only to be stashed on the bookshelves. One of the categories for Erin’s Book Challenge is mental illness in fiction, and it suited. God, did it suit.
What I liked: Theodore Finch. “What in the hell were you doing in the bell tower?”
The thing I like about Embryo is that not only is he predictable, he gets to the point. I’ve known him since sophomore year.
“I wanted to see the view.”
“Were you planning to jump off?”
“Not on pizza day. Never on pizza day, which is one of the better days of the week.” I should mention that I am a brilliant deflector. So brilliant that I could get a full scholarship to college and major in it, except why bother? I’ve already mastered the art (page 13).
It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank. One minute I was spinning, and the next minute my mind was dragging itself around in a circle, like an old, arthritic dog trying to lie down. And then I just turned off and went to sleep, but not sleep in the way you do every night. Think a long, dark sleep where you don’t dream at all (pages 15-16).
Apparently, I’m tragic and dangerous (page 26).
Someone has come in late and dropped a book and then, in picking up the book, has upset all her other books so that everything has gone tumbling. This is followed by laughter because we’re in high school… And so, because I’m used to it and because this Violet girl is about three dropped pencils away from crying, I knock one of my own books onto the floor. All eyes shift to me. I bend to pick it up and purposely send others flying — boomeranging into walls, windows, heads — and just for good measure, I tilt my chair over so I go crashing. This is followed by snickers and applause and a “freak” or two, and Mr. black wheezing. “if you’re done… Theodore… I’d like to continue.”
I right myself, right the chair, take a bow, collect my books, bow again, settle in, and smile at Violet, who is looking at me… (page 29).
Outside of class, Gabe Romero blocks my way. Amanda Monk waits just behind, hip jutted out, Joe Wyatt and Ryan Cross on either side of her. Good, easygoing, decent, nice-guy Ryan, athlete, a-student, vice president of the class. The worst thing about him is that since Kindergarten he’s known exactly who he is…
“Pick ’em up, bitch.” Roamer walks past me, knocking me in the chest — hard — with his shoulder. I want to slam his head into a locker and then reach down his throat and pull his heart out through his mouth, because the thing about being awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time.
But instead I count all the way to sixty, a stupid smile plastered on my stupid face. I will not get detention. I will not get expelled. I will be good. I will be quiet. I will be still…
I’ve made a promise to myself that this year will be different (pages 32-33).
Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow up and fill me in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak (page 63).
I sign onto Facebook, and over on Violet’s page someone from school has posted about her being a hero for saving me. There are 146 comments and 289 likes, and while I’d like to think there are this many people grateful that I’m still alive, I know better. I go to my page, which is empty except for Violet’s friend picture (pages 75).
Roamer mumbles. “Maybe you should go back up there and try again.”
“And miss the opportunity to see Indiana? No thanks.” Their eyes bore into me as I look at Violet. “Let’s go.”
“No time like the present, and all that. You of all people should know we’re only guaranteed right now.”
Roamer says, “Hey asshole, why don’t you ask her boyfriend?”
I say to Roamer, “Because I’m not interested in Ryan. I’m interested in Violet” (page 87).
Mom says, “Decca, tell me what you learned today.”
Before she can answer, I say, “Actually, I’d like to go first… I learned that there is good in the world, if you look hard enough for it. I learned that not everyone is disappointing, including me… (page 104).
Water is peaceful. I am at rest… in March of 1941, after three serious breakdowns, Virginia Woolf wrote a note to her husband… “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times… so I am doing what seems the best thing to do… you have been in every way all that anyone could be… if anybody could have saved me it would have been you” (page 106).
A voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself (page 161).
I can go downstairs right now and let my mom know how I’m feeling — if she’s even home — but she’ll tell me to help myself to the Advil in her purse and that I need to relax and stop getting myself worked up, because in this house there’s no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue…I don’t want to hear about the cardinal again. Because the thing of it is, that cardinal was dead either way, whether he came inside or not. Maybe he knew it, and maybe that’s why he decided to crash into the glass a little harder than normal that day. He would have died in here, only slower, because that’s what happens when you’re a Finch. The marriage dies. The love dies. The people fade away. (pages 185-186).
In gym, Charlie Donahue and I stand on the baseball field, way beyond third base… he crosses his arms and frowns at me. “Is it true you almost drowned Roamer?”
“Something like that.”
“Always finish what you start, man” (page 204).
“What are you most afraid of?”
I think, I’m most afraid of just be careful. I’m most afraid of the long drop. I’m most afraid of asleep and impending weightless doom. I’m most afraid of me.“I’m not.” I take her hand, and together we leap through the air. And in that moment there’s nothing I fear except losing hold of her hand (page 221).
Labels like “bipolar” say, This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses (page 272).
A string of thoughts run through my head like a song I can’t get rid of, over and over in the same order: I am broken. I am a fraud. I am impossible to love. It’s only a matter of time until Violet figures it out. You warned her. What does she want from you? You told her how it was. Bipolar disorder, my mind says, labeling itself. Bipolar, bipolar, bipolar. And then it starts all over again: I am broken. I am a fraud. I am impossible to love… (pages 277-278).
I am tired. I am avoiding seeing Violet. It’s exhausting trying to even myself out and be careful around her, so careful, like I’m picking my way through a minefield, enemy soldiers on every side. Must not let her see. I’ve told her I’ve come down with some sort of bug and don’t want to get her sick (page 281).
All I know is what I wonder: which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be (page 314).
And Violet Markey.
I love the world that is my room. It’s nicer in here than out there, because in here I’m whatever I want to be. I am a brilliant writer. I can write fifty pages a day and I never run out of words. I am an accepted future student of the NYU creative writing program. I am the creator of a popular web magazine — not the one I did with Eleanor, but a new one. I am fearless. I am free. I am safe (page 52).
I look in the direction Brenda pointed and there he is. Theodore Finch leans against an SUV, hands in his pockets, like he has all the time in the world and he expects me. I think of the Virginia Woolf lines, the ones from The Waves: “Pale, with dark hair, the one who is coming is melancholy, romantic. And I am arch and fluent and capricious for his melancholy. He is romantic. He is here” (page 90).
He sits cross-legged, wild hair bent over one of the books, and immediately it’s as if he’s gone away and is somewhere else.
I say, “I’m still mad at you about getting me in detention.” I expect some fast reply, something flirty and flip, but instead he doesn’t look up, just reaches for my hand and keeps reading. I can feel the apology in his fingers… (page 153).
The room has been stripped bare, down to the sheets on the bed. It looks like a vacant blue hospital room, waiting to be made up for the next patient (page 290).
Just two lines across, each word on a separate piece of paper. The first line reads: long, last, nothing, time, there, make, was, to, a, him.
The second: waters, thee, go, to, it, suits, if, the, thee.
I reach for the word “nothing”. I sit cross-legged and hunched over, thinking about the words. I know I’ve heard them before, though not in this order.
I take the words from line one off the wall and start moving them around (page 332).
What sucked: not a damned thing.
Having said that: Read it. Please, please read it. I know I shared a lot from this one. I promise you, there’s so much more good than I’ve included here.
Originally published August twenty-eighth, ‘seventeen.