I’m a big fan of Mr Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World (2009), and enjoyed The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (2010) as well, so he’s an author that I always keep an eye out for.
16 year old Vicky Cruz wakes up in hospital after attempting to kill herself. The doctor, Dr Desai, persuades her to stay first a few days, then a few weeks, and groups her with three other teens suffering from mental illness. Through group and individual conversations, Vicky gradually comes to realize what drove her to suicide, and begins to develop tools she can use once she’s back in the real world to help prevent a recurrence.
The four central characters, all Hispanic, are richly developed, and organically, if a little speedily, build a group dynamic that helps them all. Mona has been in care, separated from her younger sister and has attempted suicide several times. Gabriel hears a voice telling him what to do, and it appears he is following his grandmother and mother in developing schizophrenia. E. M. cannot control his angry violent outbursts. Each one, plus Dr Desai, has something to offer Vicky that will bring her towards understanding and healing.
Vicky herself, who narrates the book, gradually unfolds the circumstances and incidents that have pushed her to wanting to kill herself. As she realizes she’s suffering from depression (in a rather quick way), she starts to understand the causes of it. Coming from a wealthy background, she is initially treated with some suspicion by the other teens who all come from struggling poverty. But Vicky, in turn, is able to help them too.
This is gorgeously written with four sturdily developed central characters, layered conversations between them and a fine use of metaphor to help the reader, along with the characters, understand depression and its possible roots. I do feel like everything happens a bit too quickly for Vicky – though she is by no means ‘cured’ after 4 weeks, she has used the insights given her to develop weapons against her depression – whereas the other three characters’ progression with their illnesses is much slower-paced albeit heading in the right direction.
My other concern is that Vicky and the others’ treatment seems unrealistic for a public hospital. It would be wonderful to believe that such an intense program is available for such a small group, with a doctor able to devote her time to them and even to take them to her ranch for two weeks, but it just doesn’t feel possible. Mr. Stork, in an author’s note, talks about his teen depression and how talking, like Vicky, gave him tools to manage it, so I must believe that he used his personal experience to write this. He also gives resources.
I think this is a novel that many teens will enjoy and may even be able to use some of the tools Vicky has to deal with the helplessness that teens can feel.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Arthur A. Levine for the digital ARC.