Senior Paul Wagoner walks into his school with a stolen gun, threatens his girlfriend, Emily Beam, and then takes his own life. Soon after, angry and guilt-ridden Emily is sent to boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts, where two quirky fellow students and the spirit of Emily Dickinson offer helping hands. But it is up to Emily Beam to heal her own damaged self, to find the good behind the bad, hope inside despair, and springtime under the snow.
2/5 stars, Contemporary, Young Adult
I recently attended a writer’s conference down in Santa Barbara. One thing we did there was workshop and the workshop mindset seems to be, “What is vital here? What is absolutely essential to this story and what can be removed? What is the reader going to skip over?” When reading And We Stay, I held these questions in my mind. What was essential to this story? I guess parts of it were important – a story was told – but I didn’t feel the story. Emotion was failed to be expressed successfully in this one. The part that was meant to hold the reader, the question of why Emily was sent to boarding school and later, what exactly happened with Paul in the library, is explained on the back of the book, in italics above. There isn’t much left to the shadows.
That said, I didn’t hate this book. The characters were fairly well defined, mainly K.T. She was spunky and had some great, funny lines. I’ve known girls like her. Emily was a decent character too. I wanted more from her though. Boyfriend. Poems. Depression. Unable to make phone calls, probably from anxiety caused by the depression. Who else is she? Who is Emily? Her notebook, of course, was a moleskin. Okay, Emily Beam – Who are you? I want you to have dropped this notebook in the toilet. I want this notebook made at home. I want this notebook to have been given to her by Paul – but it isn’t a moleskin. Heck, it doesn’t have lines, which frustrates Emily. The paper is crap. All her pens seep through to the other side so Emily either, can’t read what she wrote on either side, or she uses double the amount of paper that she should. But this didn’t happen. It was a classic moleskin, and yes, a lot of writers use the classic moleskin, but still. Some individuality to this girl, besides her being an exact replica of Emily Dickinson. In most cases, I’d probably be fine with the definition given to Emily Beam, but the problem with this book is that the book is mainly driven by the character and how she develops as a person rather than a plot driven by action, where the characters react to the situation. I mean, all characters develop throughout the story, but an action/plot driven story is more focused on that than the character, like a book such as And We Stay.
Now we have got to talk about Emily Dickinson and her involvement in this novel. First off, Emily Dickinson is the one author YOU DO NOT want to quote in your book. It. Is. Expensive. She is the most expensive person to quote. A professor of mine once said $300 PER LINE. This book had whole poems. Easily several thousand dollars went into purchasing Dickinson lines for this novel (Although I tried to look up the numbers and was unable, with a quick search, to get numbers here).
Then we have the whole, “My name is Emily and I love Emily Dickinson and my hair is the same color and I wasn’t intentionally named after Emily Dickinson – oh wait guess what I am also the same height and weight as her and happened to get sent to boarding school right next to her house after my boyfriend did a bad thing.” I’m sorry, I thought this was set in the real world, not an alternate dimension? Albiet, 1995. And then this girl thinks she has a chance at getting into Harvard??? Maybe back then. Maybe. But now? In 2017? With a B? Maybe because of what happened with her boyfriend. But if she doesn’t have a family alum or hadn’t invented the newest popular social media site by the time she was 15 – fat chance.
I have some more issues with this whole school thing. Mine basically told me I had to apply to the JC closest to us as a backup and I was like, “Yeah, no. If I can’t get into one of the 6 UC’s I applied to, there is a SERIOUS problem here because I am your best student. Also, why aren’t you encouraging me to shoot for the stars???” They were always like, backup, backup, backup. They didn’t encourage anything. “Oh you want to go straight into an AP? You don’t think you should take the intro class first?” Anyways. I’m salty about my school system, probably always will be. But – Harvard. Okay, I see all these books where kids have B’s, aren’t anything special (oh, yes, but you are, reader, because your mom says so), and they think they have a reasonable chance to get into Harvard. It has a 5.4% acceptance rate (in 2016 – thanks Google). That’s five out of every one hundred. So lets break this down. That’s probably two smarties with parent alums, two kids for sports or band or whatever, then who do we think the other one is? Someone with a B? I seriously doubt it. This is the Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs guy inventing stuff in his backyard. This is the kid who created a charity when they were 12 who we see on CNN Student News today. This is the kid who held a full time job, maintained straight A’s, took online college classes, cared for his mom who should’ve been on hospice, and was president of ASB, Key Club, and the Recycling Club – all at the same time. I mean, I just pulled those numbers out of thin air, and it is probably not quite that hard to get in, but still. I went into my admissions process thinking I could get in anywhere. I would have to, right, considering I was the Valedictorian of my school and if I couldn’t get into a school, nobody else could? Especially because my school didn’t offer as many AP’s, so I didn’t have the ability to get as high of a GPA. Well, fat chance. I got waitlisted at Berkeley. Their acceptance rate was 17.5% in 2016 (thanks again, Google). So, anyways, the whole point of this rant was to show my frustration at these books that make it seem so easy to get into a school like Harvard. I believe this can cause high schoolers to not work as hard as they possible could because they believe it takes less to get into schools than it does.
Also, I wanted to know more about the parents of Emily. Sure, they weren’t major players in the story, seeing as Emily is away at boarding school, but there are some things that happen to Emily (this is the one secret the book manages to keep until the halfway point, so I’m not going to spoil it here) and her parents don’t really seem to mind. Are they the ones wanting her to go to Harvard? I think they’d get onto her more because of this thing. Why was Mrs. Beam so chill about the whole thing? Why did they think it was a good idea to separate themselves from their child who was obviously going through a rough patch?
Another character I want to know more about – Hannah. This is the person who got kicked out of Emily’s boarding school, opening a spot in K.T.’s room, allowing Emily a spot to jump in on. Everyone had some beef with Hannah, and we get that she got around with all the boys in town, but there is so much beef hinting there is more we don’t know.
I might certainly be playing into stereotypes with this one (sorry, not sorry), but I don’t know many cheerleaders who are obsessed with reading or poetry or Emily Dickinson. Let me try to explain this better – the shy poet that Emily Beam is would not be one to try out for a team sport, much less one so involved and public as cheerleading. And maybe the Emily Beam we read about is not the same Emily who tried out for the cheerleading team, seeing as she went through a tragedy, but still, this didn’t strike me as the most realistic character. I get that cheerleaders can be into poetry. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I mean that someone so shy she can’t talk on the phone, someone so shy she doesn’t know how to ask for help, someone so shy that she doesn’t know how to make friends anymore – that is not someone who would voluntarily sign up for a team sport, much less the possibly most public one: cheerleading.