Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
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Ashlyn doesn't remember dying. She doesn't remember living. And she certainly doesn't remember this broken boy she can't seem to escape in the afterlife. Though Breckon hides his despair from his family and friends, it's unmistakable to Ashlyn, who is a silent witness to his most private moments of grief. She doesn't know why she's there, or what strange power intertwined their fates, but as Breckon spirals out of control Ashlyn is determined to save him from an irrevocable fate.
My Beating Teenage Heart is unlike any tale of death and the afterlife I've ever read. It is a surreal experience, an existential look at life and death and meaning. C. K. Kelly Martin's prose envelops readers, giving them a sometimes poetic and sometimes stark look at her characters' reality. This story transcends age. Though the title references teenagers, the pain the two protagonists experience is sympathetic to anyone who's ever lost a loved one, been abused, been bullied, struggled to hang on. Martin plunges headfirst into a range of painful and hard-hitting issues, treating them all with piercing, but ultimately necessary, honesty.
Breckon's struggle with his family's tragedy is dark and raw. Martin doesn't shy away from the sometimes drastic measures people turn to in their grief, or try to rationalize the reckless abandon that comes with intense pain. He is lost and guilt-ridden and alone, pushing everyone away as he wallows in his despair. Though his feelings are understandable, at times his behavior is distancing. He doesn't try to be a martyr, which is a relief, but he's also willing to let himself hit rock bottom, to be dragged into the abyss. He doesn't try to save himself. Breckon tries so hard to suppress his emotions that they become abstract, not as viscerally wrenching for readers unfamiliar with this kind of utter devastation. The emotion behind his actions doesn't always shine through, making it difficult to connect with his motivations.
The novel features a surprising element of mystery, as readers struggle to uncover the connection between Ashlyn and Breckon, and the events that led to their separate tragedies. Ashlyn herself is in the dark (both literally and figuratively) as the novel opens. She intuitively senses that there are some things about her life she doesn't want to face, and as her memories slowly return, readers will feel the pain and frustration of injustice and cruelty alongside her. Ashlyn is a fascinating counterpoint to Breckon. They are both broken in different ways, but in life Ashlyn was determined to carry on through the pain. Her life was far from perfect, and in death she comes to realize that sometimes heartbreak and suffering are senseless, but if we're lucky, we manage to rise from the ashes -- a reality Breckon desperately needs to face.
The ending of the novel feels a little abrupt. The exposition seems to suggest a profound connection between their fates, but though there is one, it's fairly insubstantial. The resolution becomes increasingly philosophical, much too tidy for such a somber tale. Though it is perhaps the "expected" message, it diminishes the truth of loss and living that the novel has been working toward, and left me feeling a little unfulfilled.
Nonetheless, My Beating Teenage Heart is a highly intelligent novel, thought-provoking and to-the-point look at the randomness of tragedy, the sometimes irrational effects of grief, and the seemingly insignificant ways we touch each other's lives that may turn out to be the only moments that truly matter.
Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the publisher for an honest review.