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Laurel is just a typical teen, studying for the SATs, worrying about French homework, talking about boys with her best friend Megan -- until suddenly, she isn't. Her world falls apart in one fell swoop, starting with the knock of a policeman at her front door. In the wake of her family's death, Laurel must rebuild from the rubble of Before, and learn to start living in the After.
In The Beginning of After, Jennifer Castle explores what it means to survive. Though there are many such stories in the young adult genre, this novel stands out. It examines not just the grief, but the process of learning to live again when nothing will ever be the same. Laurel is understandably a mess, and it's impossible not to cry for her as she makes it through each day on trial and error -- going back to school, breaking down at a party, staying in bed for a week, rescuing strays and almost giving up altogether. Castle's portrayal of Laurel's struggle as she figures out how to carry on is heartbreakingly raw and honest. There are ups and downs and setbacks, people who try to help but only make things worse, and those few crystallized moments where the light at the end of the tunnel briefly illuminates the darkness.
The relationship between Laurel and her best friend Megan starts off strong. The girls have been best friends forever and Meg is the first one there in the wake of the accident. I was hopeful that she would be a grounding force in the novel, staying at Laurel's side through it all. Unfortunately, Megan lets her own problems make her bitter toward her best friend, whose tragedy she can't even begin to comprehend. She (understandably) doesn't know what to say or do to help Laurel, but trying would have been enough. Instead she seems rather petulant, a poor friend when Laurel needs her the most.
David is an even bigger mess than Laurel, his mother dead and his father in a coma from the accident that killed Laurel's family. He comes and goes, seeming to care for no one but himself. Yet, he's the only one who can even begin to fathom what Laurel's feeling. He doesn't treat her with kid gloves, and, when he bothers to stick around, their heartfelt discussions give Laurel the dose of normalcy she so desperately desires. Still, their relationship is far from healthy. His constant disappearances leave Laurel abandoned and alone, and their frequent fights upset the delicate balance she's managed to achieve. They're both too broken to fix each other in the end, but the ties that bind them are too strong to sever.
The Beginning of After is a powerful tale of tragedy and loss, forgiveness and moving on. Readers will be in tears almost from page one, at both the magnitude of human compassion and the horror of unfathomable loss.
Disclosure: I received an advance galley of this novel from the publisher for an honest review.
Part of the 2011 Debut Author Challenge.
Come back tomorrow for a guest post with Jennifer Castle!