August 4, 2015
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It’s all Ryden’s fault. If he hadn’t gotten Meg pregnant, she would have never stopped her chemo treatments and would still be alive. Instead, he’s failing fatherhood one dirty diaper at a time. And it’s not like he’s had time to grieve while struggling to care for their infant daughter, start his senior year, and earn the soccer scholarship he needs to go to college.
The one person who makes Ryden feel like his old self is Joni. She’s fun and energetic—and doesn’t know he has a baby. But the more time they spend together, the harder it becomes to keep his two worlds separate. Finding one of Meg’s journals only stirs up old emotions, and Ryden’s convinced Meg left other notebooks for him to find, some message to help his new life make sense. But how is he going to have a future if he can’t let go of the past?
Reading What You Left Behind, I couldn't help thinking, "I am Ryden Brooks and I am not okay."*
Of course, based on the book summary I knew Ryden was not going to be a happy go lucky guy, but he was more messed up than I was anticipating. His girlfriend recently died of cancer and Ryden knows it's his fault. If he hadn't gotten Meg pregnant then she wouldn't have stopped chemotherapy and she wouldn't have died. It doesn't matter that no one else has told him he's to blame (or even seemed to blame him), he knows it.
His guilt, pain and loss aren't making raising his (and Meg's) newborn daughter, Hope any easier. Parenting isn't something he has figured out and he can't wait until school starts back, until he can get back on the soccer field and get that soccer scholarship to college he knows is coming his way.
Nothing is quite what it used to be - or what Ryden expected - and the only place he seems to feel 'normal,' like his old self, is at work, with Joni. But she doesn't know about Meg, doesn't know he's a father. And Ryden wants to keep it that way.
Even as I couldn't quite believe how Ryden expected life to go - soccer, school, work, raising Hope, etc - and really could not believe some of the choices he made, I could understand why. (He's pretty hard to like or sympathize with, but it worked that Verdi didn't have his character take the easy road.) For so long he was the golden boy (popular, smart, star athlete, on track for a scholarship to a Division One school) and, quite quickly, almost everything is different.
His ignorance - or perhaps naivete, willful or no - makes sense when you consider all of these monumental changes in his life have occurred in roughly the last year. Paired with Meg's death and suddenly being a father, you know why Ryden doesn't have it all together.
What he thought was possible and where he thought he'd find answers were almost absurd.
With, especially, the addition of Joni to his life, we begin to see some growth in Ryden's character. I adored Joni - her clothing, her sense of humor and fun, her purse contents, her room - and the changes she brought to Ryden's life. It was hard to imagine that yet another new thing in his life would be what he needed, but she was.
I loved that What You Left Behind dealt with subjects not often explored in novels (and not in the same combination) but it never felt too 'heavy' or dark. The emotions and reactions were very real, so were the characters. There is the perfect amount of (perfectly placed) humor and hope.
Ryden Brooks was more screwed up than I thought he would be, but his story was also better than I thought it would be.
digital copy received for review, from publisher, via NetGalley
*paraphrased from this book
Praise for What You Left Behind:
“Verdi holds nothing back, shedding a realistic light on Ryden's situation, his decisions, and their very real consequences. His voice is spot-on and doesn't sugarcoat the harsh realities that he faces. It isn’t often that a book nails the male teen voice as well as Verdi does in this work. An excellent addition to YA collections.” — School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
“A powerful indictment of reparative therapy--a sweet love story--and an unforgettable main character!” --Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind
“Ryden’s story is a moving illustration of how sometimes you have to let go of the life you planned to embrace the life you’ve been given. A strong, character-driven story that teen readers will love.”
--Carrie Arcos, National Book Award Finalist for Out of Reach
“Teens will be hooked by the premise but will stick with Ryden and his friends in this all-too-real portrait of a modern family.” — Booklist
About the Author:
Jessica Verdi lives in Brooklyn, NY and received her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. Her favorite pastimes include singing show tunes at the top of her lungs (much to her husband’s chagrin), watching cheesy TV, and scoring awesome non-leather shoes in a size 5. She’s still trying to figure out a way to put her uncanny ability to remember both song lyrics and the intricacies of vampire lore to good use. Follow Jess on Twitter @jessverdi.
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