L. Lee Butler is a middle school librarian in the DC Public Schools. He’s a pretty typical librarian : likes to read, does crafts, gay. In addition to serving on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection Committee 2013, he also reviews diverse titles for School Library Journal.
The hook of When Reason Breaks, as presented in the flap copy, is to present two very different girls and tease the reader as to who will attempt suicide. Although that seems crass, showing the parallel journeys of Emily and Elizabeth allows author Cindy L. Rodriguez to explore two different expressions of depression. That either one of them could believably be the girl overdosing at the opening of the book all the way up to the ultimate reveal is the result of the author’s deep understanding of the manifold ways that depression affects people, as well as skillful misdirection.
Elizabeth Davis and Emily Delgado are classmates without much socially between them despite their last names leading them to be seated next to each other in every class. Emily is fresh off a social media debacle that led her politician father to punish her in humiliating ways. Elizabeth has rage and angst fueling her gothy new persona. And both of them will be studying Emily Dickinson in Ms. Diaz’s English class. The novel takes much of its structure and characterization from Dickinson’s poetry, biography, and speculation about her life, but keeps its influences from overwhelming the narrative.
Elizabeth’s depression is the more stereotypical teen girl depression depicted in many novels, with goth fashion decisions, secretive poetry, and violent acting out. Her depression is revealed piecemeal, so it’s not until much later in the book that we see its particular genesis. It is a testament to Rodriguez’s skill as a writer that these often-used character traits do not feel stale, but are part of a character that feels very real. It’s no wonder that Ms. Diaz latches onto her issues before Emily’s, and it is a welcome choice to see a teacher in a YA novel taking appropriate measures to deal with an obviously troubled student. I know I am not the first well-meaning adult reader of YA literature to be (inappropriately) frustrated with the lack of adult presence in the genre, so I am glad to see the depiction of a well-boundaried adult who is there for her students struggling with mental health issues. But Ms. Diaz is not the adult-insert savior of Elizabeth or Emily; she is a realistic but completely inadequate resource just like those I encountered as a depressed teenager.
But the depiction of Emily’s depression is the real jewel in the novel, painfully accurate to the kind of feelings and actions that are less showy than the typical treatment of depression in media. Without a traumatic root, Emily’s depression is an organic thing that dictates her reactions to the normal ups and downs of teenage life, which is a rarity for narrative depictions of depression. Her position as a pretty, popular girl does not save her from her mental illness. As her downward spiral begins, we get a telling glimpse into the way that depressive mindsets not only make everyday struggles difficult, but add guilt on to the struggle.
Emily looked at Mama and Pop and thought about her friends and Kevin. Like Jacob, they all had struggles, but none of them had faced a major tragedy. She watched the news. Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she was in an epic battle? Why did every snarky remark become a festering wound? Why did she always feel like she was pinned to the mat and crushed under their weight? (pages 112-113)
Rather than accepting that every life has struggles, the depressive mind tries to put feelings into false perspective. The internal monologue of “your problems aren’t so bad, cheer up!” can feel like it’s coming from a place of balance, but it’s actually just another facet of depression reflecting back on itself. It’s just as destructive as the more obviously self-hating narratives.
I am particularly grateful for and impressed by the unflinching nature of Chapter 35’s depiction of suicide. The mechanical descriptions of CPR and the ministrations of the paramedics are real and unsentimental. The following chapters, showing the fallout for others and the resistance to treatment, are correct to my recollections of a similar time in my life and what has been related to me by my family and friends. Although it is the climax of the novel, the suicide does not stand as the endpoint of the narrative. It is a turning point, as in real life, when rock bottom or a nearby shock can be a catalyst for change. The narrative shift from the past tense to the present underlines the uncertainty that this change brings.
There is so much to recommend When Reason Breaks that it’s impossible to fit it into this review. From the recognition of the physical symptoms of depression to the way diversity is woven into the characters to the realistic role that social media plays in the lives of our protagonists, this novel is a real accomplishment of characterization. Depression and suicide is not all there is to Emily or Elizabeth, nor is it the only point of the narrative, but they take center stage in an astutely observed way that is wonderful to read.