Review: When Reason Breaks

22032788Title: When Reason Breaks
Author: Cindy L. Rodriguez
Genres: Contemporary, Issue
Pages: 304
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s
Review Copy: ARC from NetGalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: 13 Reasons Why meets the poetry of Emily Dickinson in this gripping debut novel perfect for fans of Sara Zarr or Jennifer Brown.

A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.

In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.

Review: When Reason Breaks is a fantastic and difficult book to read. Difficult in the sense that Cindy L. Rodriguez does an amazing job of showcasing two very different girls and their struggles with their families, friends, and school. There’s humor, yes, and happiness, and quiet moments of connection between these two different girls, but even the good times feel uncertain and fragile because of the opening: one of the girls—and we don’t know which one—attempts to commit suicide.

In some respects, When Reason Breaks feels like a mystery as the reader attempts to figure out which of the girls left a suicide note and letters for Ms. Diaz. I personally felt that the answer was obvious, so that aspect of the book didn’t engage me as much as it probably was meant to. What Rodriguez does best, however, is giving the reader insight into both Emily and Elizabeth, especially how they deal—or don’t deal—with their emotions and the troubles they’re facing.

I had particular sympathy for Emily, whose social (media) life was under a microscope because of her father’s political ambitions and who felt smothered between demands for perfection, her friends’ desire to have fun, and her boyfriend. Where Emily turned inward, Elizabeth vented outward, often driving a wedge between her and the people who cared about her. Elizabeth’s anger and guilt fueled more than one interesting encounter. But the book was best during the few times Emily and Elizabeth interacted—especially when they connected to one another. (The scene at the party is wonderful, for the record, and is probably my favorite scene in the entire book.)

Emily Dickenson’s poetry is integral to the story; not only does Ms. Diaz feature Dickenson’s work in her classroom, but most of the chapters begin with a line from one of Dickenson’s poems. The title of the book itself is a reference to “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” I felt most of the quotations were well chosen and that they were excellent ways to set the mood for each chapter, though a few felt shoehorned in.

The rest of the characters—Ms. Diaz, Kevin, Tommy, family members, friends, and other members of the community—are an adequate supporting cast. Ms. Diaz was easily my favorite secondary character, though both Kevin and Tommy had good moments with Emily and Elizabeth. I do wish that Emily’s two friends hadn’t felt so interchangeable, though, and that they had a bigger part to play in Emily’s story than Kevin did.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re interested in a thoughtful exploration teen girls dealing with depression, dysfunctional families, and questions that don’t have easy answers. Between the Emily Dickenson’s poetry and Cindy L. Rodriguez’s prose, When Reason Breaks is a book that you’ll end up thinking about for a long time.

Extras: Cindy L. Rodriguez’s guest post at Diversity in YA.

Rodriguez on WNPR’s “Where We Live.”

“Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community” at Latin@s in Kidlit.