Characters: *** (3 stars)
Character Development: *** (3 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: ***** (5 stars)
Overall: **** (4 stars)
Age recommendation: 14+
The next library book in my high school novel stack was the first YA book by Joyce Carol Oates I had ever read. I’ve heard good things about Big Mouth, Ugly Girl, but I ended up choosing After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away because I liked the cover and the long title was irresistibly intriguing. This was a much darker story than The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and while I tend to prefer funny young adult books over tragic ones I will say that Oates made a lasting impression on me with this novel. The writing was poetic and the narrative was fluid: I found myself so deep inside Jenna’s tumultuous mind that it got hard to extract my own thoughts and impressions from her stream-of-consciousness style and memorable voice.
The un-glamourous school setting in After The Wreck was vivid, chaotic, and realistic. It reminded me of the middle school I had attended, though the characters were older and, therefore, the stakes were higher. We read about Jenna’s high school experiences after she recovers from a terrible car wreck – one which kills her mother and changes her forever – and moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new life. After The Wreck is one part tragedy, one part angsty teen nightmare about addiction, one part coming of age story, and one part meditation on grief and forgiveness. Because the narrator is going through her own personal development as well as the unimaginable suffering of blaming herself for a parent’s death, the difficulties she faces are more dire than any which I experienced as a teenager, but the difficulties she experiences at school are universal and unavoidable. Untrustworthy and manipulative friends, unrequited love, substance abuse, frustratingly bad communication between adults and teenagers: these conflicts rear their ugly heads in most teenagers’ lives despite their varying backgrounds or past experiences.
Oates writes about the distinction between Jenna’s life “before the wreck” and “after the wreck” to keep the plot visible and clear, but the story really focuses on facing internal fears and external pressures. In her new town, Jenna meets a mysteriously aloof boy called Crow who inspires her to confront her memories and overwhelming sense of guilt, but he, like the other supporting characters in After The Wreck, seemed a little two-dimensional compared to Oates’s complex protagonist. I sometimes wished that we could get a more detailed look at such compelling figures as Crow and the volatile teenagers who adopt Jenna into their social circle, but I do think that the decision to keep the entire story from her limited point of view was important to maintain the story’s style and tone.
I would recommend After The Wreck to older teenaged readers who have a good chunk of time to devote to reading a harrowing (but ultimately hopeful) book. Joyce Carol Oates’s writing style is so absorbing and compelling that it’s best to finish this book in one day, or one might risk going about their real life as though they were still in Jenna’s fragile consciousness. Oates portrays the ferocity with which young people must face the worst parts of growing up in sympathetic detail. I may not have laughed much while reading After The Wreck, but each page brought a flood of memories from my own angst-ridden teenage years to mind, and I vote that’s one sign of a well-done high school book.