Stay With Me (Houghton Mifflin: April 24, 2006), by Garret Freymann-Weyr, is a highly complex and rewarding young adult novel. It tells of a year in the life of sixteen-year-old Leila Abranel, a New York City high school student with a rather unconventional family. Leila begins her story indirectly, recounting her occasional meetings with her sisters' mother. Leila has two much older half-sisters, from her father's doomed first marriage. Leila admires her vibrant and quirky sister Rebecca, and turns to her for advice, while respecting her more formal sister Clare's preference to remain distant. The family has a balance, if an unusual one, right up until Rebecca commits suicide.
After Rebecca's clearly premediatated suicide, everything changes for Leila. Her parents take a one-year job helping to create a new teaching hospital in Poland. Leila moves in with her sister Clare, and has Raphael, a distant cousin (and former boyfriend of Clare's), as a secondary guardian. Leila goes on with her life - school, a part-time job, finally getting to know Clare - but struggles to understand Rebecca's suicide. She latches on to her last sighting of Rebecca, and tries to find the person that Rebecca was with at the time, thinking that he might have some insight for her.
This book is about so many different things. Stay With Me is about what it means to be a family. (Raphael, despite his relatively distant family connection, helps Leila with her homework, gives her advice, and takes on a near-parental role.) Stay With Me is about trusting your own body (and yourself), and knowing what you are and are not ready for sexually. Stay With Me is about why someone with most of her life ahead of her would commit suicide, and the devastating impact of a suicide on the people left behind. Stay With Me is about what it's like to be dyslexic (Leila is dyslexic), and how it can affect a person's entire way of thinking.
And yes, as you are sure to read in other reviews, Stay With Me is about teen-aged Leila's friendship with and sexual interest in a 31-year-old man, Eamon. What I found remarkable about this entire storyline was how normal Freymann-Weyr made it seem, and how NOT creepy the plot-line was. I want to be sure to get this across to you, because I was initially hesitant to read the book, knowing about this Lolita-esque theme. Leila's relationship with Eamon is an important part of the book, but it's only a part of a much more fully realized story, and it's handled exceedingly well.
I found Stay With Me to be very well-written. The characters, especially Leila, are complex and realistic. Leila's voice is particularly engaging. Her dyslexia shapes her perceptions of herself, her ability to make decisions, and her day-to-day life, with a pervasiveness that I hadn't anticipated or understood before reading this book. Somehow Freymann-Weyr conveys this without ever making Leila someone to be pitied or ridiculed over her learning disability. It's a remarkable achievement.
I think that high school readers will enjoy this book, especially those with learning disabilities or unconventional families (and what family seems normal, when you're in high school?). And I think that teens who are (horrifyingly) curious about suicide will find in this book a subtle, but strong, anti-suicide message. I believe in general that parents should read as many of the books that their kids read as possible. But I especially believe that parents should read Stay With Me with their kids. There are many great discussion points in the book.
As you can tell, I liked this book a lot. The plot is multi-layered without being confusing, with a nice blend of poignancy, humor, tension. I read it in a single day, not so much because I needed to know what happened, as because I wanted to spend more time with Leila, and make sure that she was alright. But I won't tell you the answer to that. You'll have to read Stay With Me yourself.
About the author: Garret Freymann-Weyr is the author of three other books for young adults: When I Was Older, My Heartbeat, and The Kings Are Already Here. My Heartbeat, a Michael Printz Honor Book, was a Booklist Pick of the List and one of YALSA's Best Books for Young Adults in 2003. Garret Freymann-Weyr grew up in New York City and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband.
I received a review copy of this book from Tara Koppel at Raab Associates. Thanks, Tara, for continuing to send me such great books!
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.