All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011 (Currently Available)
Face Value: This is a cover that drew me in right away. It features some things I really love. The chocolate heart image I could take or leave, but I love the blank white space, the way the numbers heighten the message of the title and the ‘look-closer-to-read-it’ hook lines that set up the story to be seriously compelling. It’s way, way better than the giant face on the paperback cover, to be released in May.
Does it Break the Slate? Unequivocally. Anya basically has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she handles it astonishingly well. She’s constantly trying to balance her own wants and needs with her responsibility to her family, she’s a fierce protector of the people she loves and very few people want to mess with her. She handles some seriously horrible situations with about as much grace as one could possibly manage, and tries to do the right thing even when it means doing something she doesn’t want to do. Plus, dumping a tray of lasagna on your insane jerk of an ex-boyfriend is not unlike breaking a slate over somebody’s head when provoked.
Who would we give it to? This is a very different kind of dystopia. I think I’d save this one for someone experiencing dystopia burnout, or interested in exploring the genre while still maintaining some of the traditional features of contemporary realism. At its heart this is a story about love and family. The futuristic setting creates a fascinating backdrop, but it’s much more people than plot.
Review: Anya Balanchine’s New York City looks very different than the one we know today. Chocolate and caffeine are illegal, paper is scarce and water is probably running out worldwide. Anya, as the oldest daughter of the late head of a crime family has a lot of responsibility. Both of her parents died in separate mob hits, years apart, by the time she was nine. Her grandmother and legal guardian is being kept alive by machines. Her older brother Leo is developmentally delayed, thanks to the same hit that killed her mother, and her younger sister Natty has nightmares so bad she wakes up screaming most nights. She’s trying to make it to eighteen without any trouble so that she can become Natty’s legal guardian and protect her family, but circumstances are conspiring to make things difficult. She falls in love with Win Delacroix, the son of New York’s tough on crime ADA. Her ex-boyfriend is poisoned by contaminated chocolate and Anya is suspected of the crime. Leo is offered a job working in the family business. It gets to the point where Anya can no longer just keep her head down and move through her surroundings – she has to take charge.
This book covers a lot of ground. It started in one direction, and then veered off in a totally different one when Anya is arrested and sent to a horrifying corrections facility (Liberty Children’s, housed in what used to be the Statue of Liberty). These scenes are brutal, and really compelling. And when she’s released, the book takes another, equally compelling turn. I was impressed by how fully realized all of the plotlines in the narrative really were. Plus, each of the characters were truly well developed. Often, when you have a hardcore amazing protagonist responsible for all these people in her life, those auxiliary characters fall flat in comparison. But Anya’s world is richly populated. Win is sexy and fascinating and a worthy match for Anya. I absolutely believed the way they fell for each other. Leo’s frustration with his limitations and people’s constant underestimation of him was deeply empathetic and Natty’s growth from a scared little girl into her own person was given the attention that it deserved. Anya’s best friend Scarlett is a terrific character in her own right, and never reduced to being simply a sounding board for our protagonist. Even the small characters who we encounter only briefly, like Mouse, Anya’s bunkmate at Liberty or Natty’s math teacher make a lasting impression. Gabrielle Zevin’s richly literate prose and world-building makes for great storytelling that will stick with me a long time.
Plus, Anya is not just a tough-as-nails Slatebreaker, she’s deeply complex. Is there anything more heartbreaking than a character who has to choose between what she wants for herself and what she needs to do to care for the people in her life? Her journey through these decisions is riveting, and her loyalty, cleverness and ferocity are enviable. But she’s not perfect either. She holds a grudge, she always thinks she knows best, and she doesn’t always listen to the people she loves when she thinks she has a better answer. There are moments in this book where she is ruthlessly brutal – she’s spent so much time being responsible for others that she can forget about compassion. I love seeing a wonderful character with really legitimate flaws – no forced “clumsiness” to make her seem more relatable but real, dynamic, frustrating shortcomings. And ultimately, of course, like the flawed people in our own lives, we love them anyway.
Zevin does something totally brilliant with her setting here, and she implements it in a really subtle way. Her New York City is set in 2083 – just far enough into the future for things to have gone horribly awry but not so far that the world is unrecognizable or totally unfamiliar to us (ala The Hunger Games, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Across the Universe, or one of the plethora of other dystopias that are worlds away from our current civilization). Anya’s ancient grandmother Galina who she describes as having “the distinction of being both the oldest and the sickest person I had ever known,” was born in 1995. Which means that in 2011, the year this book was released in real life, Galina would have been 16, presumably the target age for readers of this book. Zevin never hits the readers over the head with this information, but its subtly embedded there, when Galina reflects on the past we see glimpses of our current high tech life, that readers will certainly pick up on. Overall, this makes for a fascinating addition to the wide collection of dystopia on library shelves in the past few years.
Reviewed from Library Copy.