Khanh the Killjoy

A mystery, not a thriller

This Is How It Ends - Jen Nadol

This is a well-written YA mystery, but from the blurb, I expected more darkness and more excitement. I enjoyed it, but I found it lacking on the promised darkness and suspense.

The good:
1. A well-developed group of best friends, male and female
2. A realistic amount of romance
3. Psychologically complex characters
4. Great small-town atmosphere
5. A well-written love triangle based on friendship, and a light amount of romance
6. A male narrator who is neither an asshole, nor a girl in disguise. He has a crush on a girl, but he never sings odes of unrealistic poetry about the color of her eyes or her hair

The not-that-great
1. The mystery---from the premise, I expected more of a paranormal twist; this is more of a Monkey's Paw sort of premise. There is only one "strange" element in this book. If you read this, be warned that this is not much more than a well-written psychological mystery
2. The pacing: it is a slow book
3. It's still a love triangle
4. The binoculars: even when explained, it's a pretty flimsy premise that felt pieced together from bits and pieces of pseudo-science

The Summary:

“I saw my dad,” she said shakily. “In our house. There was blood everywhere.” Natalie stopped, breathed quickly, like she could barely suck in the air. “I think he was dead.”

It all started with their last trip into the Vermont woods. Riley and his friends are taking one last trip to their favorite part of the Vermont woods before winter---and the stress of senior year hits. With him are Natalie, Tannis, Trip, and Trip's girlfriend, Sarah. Sarah, whom Riley adores, unrequited. During a game of Truth or Dare, Sarah and Riley go into a cave...instead of sharing a secret, they find a box containing a pair of binoculars that are anything but ordinary. Instead of magnifying what's in front of them, they show Riley a vision...

There was someone beside me in that bed.
I watched my other self turn toward the rustling sheets that were twisting slowly as a girl rolled and pushed up on one arm, a glint of metal by her throat. Her skin was soft and silky down to her shoulder, where her body disappeared, bare, beneath the covers.

Riley is not alone, his friends see visions as well. They're not sure what the visions represent, or if they're, in fact, visions at all? Was it a mass hallucination? A psychotropic drug transplanted on the binoculars? Do the binoculars show visions of the future? Or is it something else?

“Maybe it was, like, our hidden thoughts,” I said, watching her reaction. “Our deepest wishes or worst fears or some thing.”

Whatever it is, not all the visions are as benign as Riley's. His friend Natalie sees her father's bloody death.

And it's a death that actually happens. Natalie's father is killed, and she is a suspect. Natalie's father is a troubled man, and all her friends know it. They can't help but think that maybe Natalie had something to do with it, and apparently, so do the police. And what is the binocular's role in all this?

“What if this is like that and somehow it changed Natalie?” I said, then added, “We have no idea what we’re dealing with.”

The Mystery: The premise of the binocular is more of a slightly-paranormal force that drives the plot along, rather than anything paranormal or malicious itself. The binoculars are psychological mindfuck, as the teenagers in this book try to determine the visions and what they mean. In that sense, it works quite well. Think about it, if you were to have a vision of yourself lying dead on the floor, what would you think? How would you try to change it? Would you try to change your life while thinking that it's a vision of the future? Would you try to change the paths that would remove you furthest from that future? Or would you do nothing, thinking that it's your mind playing tricks on you?

In that sense, it works well, but for me, I guess I wanted more than that. I wanted more meaning, I wanted more darkness, I wanted to be scared and thrilled. This book did neither for me.

The Setting:

It was one of the things I hated about Buford. Everyone knew too much about everyone else.

Small-town Vermont. A dead-end town. Growing up in Buford, Vermont, you have two choices. Get the fuck out, or have no future. It's not a big industrial town, it is a small town of 1200, that depends on the winter and the skiing tourists. Like any backwaters location, there is a drug problem. The police force isn't that great. You will likely have known your classmates since kindergarten.

The townspeople each have distinct, authentic character, however little they appear in the book. From the relaxed police officer...

Some guys probably were excited by the idea of “real” police work, but Bob wouldn’t be one of them. He had a little girl and a pretty wife and seemed content to shoot the shit with the townies and write the occasional parking ticket. the wonderful AP Physics teacher who instills passion in learning despite his four-person class.

The Characters: I really loved the teenagers in this book, they each had complex psychological profiles, and I didn't feel like they were tropes at all. From Natalie, the champion skiier with a trailer trash family she wants to protect, to car-loving tough-girl Tannis, with an unexpected amount of passion and reason for her steely exterior.

"I’ve watched how it is for my mom, stuck in the house—every minute she’s not working, that is—washing and cleaning and cooking and then washing and cleaning and cooking again. She’s been doing it for twenty years, and my mom’s awesome, but she’s never done any of the stuff she wanted. Live in a city, fly on an airplane, do a job where she gets to wear a suit. Kids are a straight-up dead-end boring job, and it is definitely not for me.”
Outside of the five best friends, there are other side characters who are sympathetic, too. The adults are well-portrayed. They're not flawless, they're not dumb; they are humans who make mistakes, and they are people who have lives outside of their children.

The Romance: There is a love triangle in the book, and it didn't bother me that much. What made the romance bearable is the lightness of it, and the fact that the people involved are friends, first and foremost. They've known each other since they were twelve. Riley wanted to date Sarah...but his friend, Trip, got to her first. Imagine about to tell your best friend that you're about to ask a girl out, only to have your best friend tell you that he's asking the same girl out. Riley played the bigger man, he let Trip date Sarah without ever confessing his feelings...
And the rest, as they say, is history. Trip went with her, I stayed home, and from then on I got to watch the two of them—my sometimes best friend and the girl I’d been crushing on—fall in love. Un-fucking-believable.
There's the friendship. Sarah and Riley are friends, they talk to each other, they have their close moments, but it takes awhile for their relationship to develop into romantic potential. And when they do, there's so much guilt involved that I can't hate them at all.
“Oh God, Sarah.” I pulled back, away from her. I kid you not, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. “I can’t. God knows I want to.”
Overall: A solid book, with great characters and good writing. The plot is slow, and the paranormal element very light and somewhat unbelievable. Recommended, with reservations.

Quotes taken from an uncorrected galley subject to change in the final published edition.