Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers on August 1st, 2017
“This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not. Not for any of it.”
Ben Gibson is many things, but he’s not sorry and he’s not a liar. He will tell you exactly about what happened on what started as a simple school camping trip in the mountains. About who lived and who died. About who killed and who had the best of intentions. But he’s going to tell you in his own time. Because after what happened on that mountain, time is the one thing he has plenty of.
This will likely be a quick review because I was very disappointed with this book and I’d like to just move past it. Stephanie Kuehn is an auto-buy author for me and so I was obviously extremely excited to get this in my hands as fast as possible and devour it just as quickly. But I feel that the bar was set pretty high with Complicit a couple years ago and it’s just not easy to meet those same standards. I waited and waited for When I Am Through With You to get better, gripping, thrilling and it simply never did.
That’s not to say there wasn’t anything redeemable in here. What I liked the most about this book was the bad decisions almost every character made. I know that sounds weird, but in the YA world right now there are too many people harshly criticizing teenagers for acting rashly, without forethought, with their hormones, and it’s like no one remembers what it was like to actually be a teenager. But Stephanie Kuehn does. She perfectly grasped the feeling of knowing you are currently, right now, doing the Wrong Thing, but continuing to do it anyway. She made realistic the act of doing something and not really knowing why, without being frustrating to this adult reader.
I also really liked reading from Ben’s perspective. Ben has a pretty dark history; his father walked out on his family, he killed his stepfather, and he’s found himself in a never-ending cycle of guilt surrounding his mother’s poor mental and physical health. He is regularly mistreated by the people who are supposed to love him and he’s internalized it. But what is so brilliant about Ben’s characterization is that he thinks he knows he’s internalized these feelings. He thinks he knows when he’s being manipulated and he believes he’s okay with it. In reality though, he’s being misused and abused in so many other ways but he doesn’t even notice! This makes Ben’s version of events much more intriguing and much more unreliable.
However, the events in question were absolutely boring. There’s no other way to describe this book. Now, admittedly, I am not a huge fan of survival stories. It’s not a subgenre I reach for. I didn’t know this was going to be that kind of book when I picked it up, but I still would have read it anyway because Stephanie Kuehn. This book is violent and dark and kind of incredible – in the way that there’s no credibility to the histories of the characters or their actions on the mountain. Despite Kuehn’s beautiful writing, I just couldn’t feel compelled to give a crap about any of it. I didn’t care about the orienteering club, I didn’t care about Ben’s relationship with Rose, or her manic-pixie-dreaminess. I didn’t at all care about Ben’s out-of-school interactions with Mr. Howe and his wife. While I liked Ben okay and thought he was a fascinating character, his life was just boring. I can’t help but believe this book would have been much more interesting from any other character’s point of view, especially those in the thick of it all like Avery or Tomas.
A lot of people die. There’s an explosion, a massacre, a miscommunication, a misidentification. Somehow, though, there was never a point at which I couldn’t put the book down and walk away from it. What’s worse is that by the end, the whole thing felt pointless. I thought Ben’s reason for killing Rose came on way too quickly – for someone who supposedly never makes a decision for himself, it doesn’t take too much prodding for him to decide to end Rose’s life. He’s had the wool pulled down over his eyes for so long and then a few hours later just makes a decision based on the tiniest trickle of information? And for someone who is plagued by guilt just for looking at someone the wrong way, how could he feel no remorse for what he did? The whole climax was anticlimactic and there should have been much more time spent getting to the why and internal how of Rose’s murder, since that’s the hook that had us all reading from the beginning. This wasn’t a story at all of how he came to kill Rose. This was a story of Ben realizing that he’d been making shitty decisions the whole time, even if he wanted to pretend nothing was his fault.
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t that quick but I had to take the time to explain how I felt. Bored, mostly. Fascinated by how a character can deceive himself. And frustrated by the rushed ending and the very pointless passages involving Mr. Howe’s wife at the end. All of this is made even more sad by the fact that I love Kuehn’s writing and her books are typically wild and bizarre. I do think there are others out there who will appreciate this more than I did, but in the end I felt it was a dull, jumbled mess of tragic backstories, bad decisions, and hiking.