Title: The Grief Keeper
Author: Alexandra Villasante
Genres: Contemporary, LGBTQIA
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now
Summary: When her brother is murdered, and her little sister’s life is threatened, seventeen-year-old Marisol Morales knows they have no choice but to flee their home in El Salvador, and steal across the US border. Especially because she knows everything is her fault. If she had never fallen for the charms of a beautiful girl named Liliana, Pablo might still be alive, her mother wouldn’t be in hiding, and she and Gabi wouldn’t have been caught by ICE.
But they have been caught and their asylum request will most certainly be denied. With truly no options remaining, Marisol jumps at an unusual opportunity to stay in the United States. She’s asked to become a grief keeper, taking the grief of another into her own body to save a life. It’s a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.
The Grief Keeper is a tender tale that explores the heartbreak and consequences of when both love and human beings are branded illegal.
Review: (Note: This book includes racism/xenophobia, graphic violence/gore, death/murder, suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts/ideation, PTSD, homophobia, and homophobia-based violence.)
Alexandra Villasante tackles several difficult topics in The Grief Keeper with a great deal of sensitivity. Where other authors might be tempted to sensationalize or exploit pain, Villasante stays true to the characters and the story she is telling. It is a story about cultures and systems designed to punish and harm, and the people who perpetuate, take advantage of, and must endure them. That’s one of the things I admire most about this book—that it digs deep into how people with power and privilege will embrace an unethical system so long as it gets them what they want.
I am a sucker for stories centered on siblings, and the heart of The Grief Keeper is Marisol’s burning desire to keep her sister Gabi safe after they have to flee violence in El Salvador. The sisters’ dynamic is complicated by their hardships and their changing priorities throughout the book. Marisol is caught between a big-sister and mother role, and she and Gabi butt heads on and off throughout. It’s always nice to see complicated, loving sibling relationships in YA, and Villasante excelled at writing this one.
Marisol’s relationship with Rey, the other half the experiment, was thoughtful and interesting. It built up into a romance slowly, carefully, with Marisol first trying to interact with Rey out of worry the experiment would be deemed a failure and then transitioning to mutual curiosity and attraction. There were many great moments between them, and their relationship was one I bought into, both its highs and its lows. I enjoyed their banter and how sweet Rey could be with Marisol, and I was happy to see how Rey reacted when she learned more about the experiment.
I also liked how Villasante used Marisol’s flashbacks throughout the book to explain what (really) happened in El Salvador and how the events there shaped what Marisol did and didn’t say in her asylum hearing at the start of the book. Each flashback gave us new insight into Marisol, her family, and her perception of herself. Watching it come together made for a satisfying read.
Recommendation: Get it soon. Alexandra Villasante’s The Grief Keeper is a timely book about immigration, mental health, and broken systems. Marisol’s story is heartbreaking and heartwarming, and the love she has for her sister and for Rey moves the story along at a good pace. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for Villasante’s next work. In the meantime, if you haven’t read this book, you should definitely add it to your list.
Read an excerpt & interview with the author of THE GRIEF KEEPER at Penguin Teen
Sarah Lyu interviews Alexandra Villasante for THE GRIEF KEEPER at class2k19books.com