The Short Version: Sure, we always follow the story of the hero or the Chosen One… but what about the other kids? The ones who also live in the town but are more concerned with cute boys/girls, friendship, finals, prom, graduation, etc? This is a story about what happens to those kids while the latest apocalypse happens to the Chosen Ones.
The Review: Remember towards the end of the third season of Buffy when the student body gives her the Class Protector award and they’re like “hey, just so you know, we do know that weird stuff has been going on in our town…”? Imagine that, instead of continuing to follow Buffy, the show then pivoted to follow the lives of the ordinary characters around town while the supernatural stuff happened sort of in the background – but it still had the pop culture sensibilities and insightful depictions of teenagers. That’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here.
A friend of mine has been urging me to check out Patrick Ness for quite some time – and A Monster Calls & the Chaos Walking trilogy have been on that long list for a while now – but I was rather pleased to encounter him first with this book. It gives me great hope that I’m going to enjoy the rest of his canon, top to tail, for this one is smart and funny and deeply heartfelt while also taking care to be original.
For example. Each chapter begins, as some fantasy novels do, with a rough synopsis of the things that will happen in that chapter: this character encounters this magical creature, this person dies, these people fall in love, etc. And then the ensuing chapters have… none of those people involved. It took me a moment to realize what, exactly, was going on – but when it clicked, I was delighted. We get a sense of the Epic Stuff happening on the periphery but the story remains rooted in reality – and the dissonance between the two made me grin at the start of every chapter.
This is not to say that astounding things aren’t happening to Mikey and his friends. They are, after all, in the town where strange things do happen – and so when one of the so-called “indie kids” (an admittedly strange naming decision on the part of the author; it always rang a little false) dies, for example, they’re aware of it. A note on this, actually: even the lack of obvious mourning on the part of our main characters – the kids who die aren’t their friends, they only know them tangentially – felt honest. There were a few deaths at my high school during my four years and I didn’t know the kids at all and so I felt pretty much exactly how these kids feel. Ness’ accuracy here is greatly appreciated – because even outside of the supernatural occurrences, not everybody in a school is involved with every thing that happens, you know?
But back to the supernatural stuff.
Ness does pull one punch in the novel: Mikey and his friends aren’t as ordinary as Ness would have us believe at the outset. Or, well, one of his friends isn’t as ordinary – and while that character is interesting and has a terrific arc, their extraordinariness undercuts the power of having this be a story about just the ordinary kids. I suppose it’s not necessarily set up that way, but from the opening moments, you kind of do hope that it’ll be exactly that. The fact that it isn’t doesn’t diminish the book, but it does feel like Ness wouldn’t quite go the full distance with the idea. This is probably a better book than that one, though, so who cares?
The best thing to come out of this book, though, is in fact the depictions of young characters struggling to figure their lives out before graduating. And Ness doesn’t hold back: these kids are drinking, they’re having sex, and they’re being reckless. They can be mean, they can be stupid, they can be (and very often are) lacking the fullest understanding of a situation… just like real teenagers. The world can be falling apart around you – exploding concerts, strange invasions from other realms, etc. – and a high school senior is still going to be worried, at some fundamental level, about prom. About college. About what happens in adulthood.
And it should be noted that Ness’ adults are rare in my YA-ish experience too: they’re not only flawed, but openly and humanly so. They’re not “parents who don’t understand” – they’re parents who understand all too well but who have grown up. It’s a thrill to see several grown-ups, at one point or another, mention the weird things that went down when they were teenagers – because the kids often wonder if they are really so blind as to not see these things and it’s nice to get that moment of realization that, yes, they do, but they react differently now. It’s not quite the Calvin & Hobbes thing, where the parents see but don’t have the imagination anymore – instead, it’s that they have concerns (just like the kids do) that overwhelm the extraordinary. Like a drinking problem, like a dissolving family, like putting career first. This is real stuff and it is handled without any pretense or coddling. And I want to cheer Ness’ name from grade-school rooftops for such a thing. I also wouldn’t be surprised if such honesty gets this book banned in more conservative school districts. You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any such thing.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A really fun, wry, original take on the teenage fantasy novel – focusing not on the Heroes but on the ordinary kids off to the side. I saw a review on Goodreads that showed a screenshot of a Buffy episode and had circled some background actors and, yep, those kids are the stars here. (Well, mostly.) But Ness has a big heart and a willingness to show teenagers in all their messy glory and so the book succeeds not only on a quirk level but on a just-good-story level. We’re in a golden age of writing for younger audiences and it seems that Mr. Ness is absolutely at the top of that game right now. I look forward to diving into his back catalog with all speed.