What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee
My Rating: 3/5 TARDISes
Date Published: May 15th, 2018
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Pages: 208 pages
Synopsis: After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.
Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.
When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
This is a spoiler-free review.
I desperately wanted to love this book, and thought that I would, but I ended up feeling pretty lukewarm about it overall. Don’t get me wrong, what is contained in these pages is absolutely beautiful—there are so many touching moments between the very endearing characters. Every page made me fall more and more in love with every single aspect of the narrative—but then it just stopped. I was simply left wanting so much more out of it, and an expansion of the captivating plot and characters.
In this novel, we follow a sixteen-year-old boy named Will, who is attempting to deal with and process his emotions that resulted from his father’s suicide. His days have become repetitive, going from working at the Dollar Only store, walking all over the streets of his neighborhood in Los Angeles, and desperately trying—to no avail—to replicate his father’s famous cornbread recipe.
However, there are certain ties to his father that he cannot seem to face, particularly the blessings store that contains the chest of one-hundred Chinese blessings, his old best friend Playa’s house, and the Fourth Street bridge. After learning the Playa was raped at a party he had attended but left early, he shakes himself out of the sadness that has been controlling his every move.
Wanting to spread some happiness and make a positive impact in the world, he starts to leave small presents for many of the important people in his life: The Little Butterfly Dude, a child he passes on his way home every day; Superman, the homeless man who lives on a street he travels on as he walks to work; and Playa. Through these anonymous acts of kindness and selflessness, he finds that he is able to cope with his own suffering, and continue on with his life in a way that would make his father incredibly proud.
The format that this story is written in is wonderfully unique and adds to the poignancy of the narrative itself. Told in small sections and few words—one-hundred pages, each containing one-hundred words—the style felt so meaningful. On top of this, the writing is lovely and flows incredibly well. McGhee shows a huge amount of talent for creating a well-written and vividly emotional narrative. It is clear that every part of it is meticulously crafted.
Honestly, my main complaint—really my only complaint—is that this story is far too short, and deserved so much more time. The length and format is inventive; however it is nowhere near enough to take this story to the levels it should have gone. Everything about this novel is deeply touching and just plain gorgeous. I adored every second I spent in this world and with these characters.
I not only craved more, I also unfortunately felt like there really should have been more. The brevity of the narrative adds to the depth, but it ended up being a bit too brief, finishing quite abruptly. Though I clearly enjoyed it, I was left feeling unsatisfied. I wanted so badly to spend more time with these characters—to get to know them better. I wish McGhee would have kept that short vignette format, but extended the length of the novel itself, and delved further into the relationships, intense emotions, and Will’s recovery process.
I cannot fully express how beautiful and optimistic this novel is—the world needs more of this positivity and urging to spread kindness. Though it needed more to it, it was such a sweet story, and I do highly recommend giving it a read.