Published by MTV Books on 6/14/11
Genres: Tough Issues
Source: The Smashtastic Library
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How can you make someone love you when they won’t?
And what if that person happens to be your mother?
Sayre Bellavia grew up knowing she was a mistake: unplanned and unwanted. At five months shy of eighteen, she’s become an expert in loneliness, heartache, and neglect. Her whole life she’s been cursed, used, and left behind. Swallowed a thousand tears and ignored a thousand deliberate cruelties. Sayre’s stuck by her mother through hell, tried to help her, be near her, be important to her even as her mother slipped away into a violent haze of addiction, destroying the only chance Sayre ever had for a real family.
Now her mother is lying in a hospital bed, near death, ravaged by her own destructive behavior. And as Sayre fights her way to her mother’s bedside, she is terrified but determined to get the answer to a question no one should ever have to ask: Did my mother ever really love me? And what will Sayre do if the answer is yes?
Interest in Book
It’s obvious that this is not a book I would normally read. I am glad that my book club chose it for September’s read, as it was emotional and affected me deeply. Sayre, a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood, recounts her extremely difficult life in Podunk Town, USA, as her mother lies dying in the hospital from an extreme life of her own.
This book was intense in a way that makes your heart hurt and your head spin as the horrific reality of Sayre’s situation permeate your bones. The setting is impoverished and stark, the existence of the characters painful, traumatic, bleak. Watching another person experience such abuse, neglect and trauma is difficult to swallow. While this is fiction, it is every day reality for many children. Sayre’s experience may resonate with some readers who have experienced such trauma, or know someone who has. I’d say that a good many of us can relate in some form or another.
The book flips from present day (roughly 24 hour time frame minus last chapter) to flashbacks of Sayre’s life. I really enjoy books that do this, but some indication of time would have been helpful. It’s obvious that she continues to age throughout the flashbacks, but it would have been nice to have dates. Sayre is a good narrator. She picks up on interesting details, and it progresses as she grows to show moving from concrete to abstract thinking.
Sayre’s mother is a beast of a character. A very sick individual who turns to drugs, alcohol and men to numb the pain of her failures and could-have-beens. I assume she blames Sayre for everything wrong in her life. Her mother’s actions towards Sayre were vile and horrible beyond words. I think when she looks at Sayre, she sees all the things she hates about her own self. It’s not easy to accept your own character flaws. Her mother’s best friend, Candy, was just as vile and her treatment of Sayre just as disgusting. I sometimes wonder if Candy was a huge influence on mom’s downward spiral to Hell, or if she would have ended up the same without her.
Sayre’s compassion for others, despite her environment and experience with people, was awe-inspiring. We first meet her as she’s walking home from her waitress job in ugly, snowy conditions. She’s got dinner in her hands, leftovers from the diner. Growing up never knowing when the next meal would be, she still feeds a bobcat on the way home, and a small kitten she has been caring for under the trailer. Her first encounter with Evan, a boy in town, culminates in a life-threatening moment for him. She stays with him until help arrives. There are little snippets like these that really drive home the reality that Sayre is definitely different from her mother.
The most interesting aspect of this book was when Sayre finally makes it to the hospital to visit her mother. Even though she feels extremely negative emotions towards her, she bargains and remains in denial that her mother’s life is coming to an end. She questions how deep the bond goes between a mother and her child.
And maybe love is terrifying. I’m terrified now, but not in the way she would think.
I’m terrified because I hate who she is and what she’s done, I do, and yet there is still something strong and powerful between us, some kind of deep, primal bond that won’t end, won’t snap or break or change, it just remains there inside me, as solid and factual as my blood and bones – she is my mother, I am her daughter – and I don’t know what to call it because it doesn’t feel like love, not the good kind I felt for Ellie, with all my heart, but instead an instinctual pull that’s been there from the beginning, drawing me back to her again and again, the woman who has hurt me like no one else ever could, and now she’s dying and the bond is still here, inside me, and I won’t call it love or hate because emotions has nothing to do with the fact that she is my mother and I am her daughter, and we will be connected in that way forever.
This scene is one that stuck with me. As a social worker, I often hear people baffled over the fact that many children take the abuse given to them by parents, that they don’t speak up and flee for safety. As an adult, it’s so very hard to put yourself in a child’s shoes. I think it’s difficult for people to understand that at the end of the day, after the screaming, cursing and violence, that the child remains because that is their parent. Children want to please people, especially their parents, and they are also egocentric and feel like every single problem that rains down on their head is their own fault. Therefore, they do not want to cause more trouble for their parents than they already perceive they are doing. When love and affection is doled out, it only adds to the confusion, as the child wonders what exactly love is. That of course adds to the violent cycle that many families are trapped in. Sayre sums it up here:
If she’d said she loved me and still did all those cruel and careless things, would my child mind have decided to accept that as the definition of love?
Would I have ended up believing that love was manipulative and hurtful and full of pain, gotten use to being shoved aside, sworn at and disregarded, picked up and hugged, and then slapped around for getting in the way, starved and smiled at, neglected and cursed, told I was no good and would never amount to anything, then hefted high and proudly shown off down at the Walmart, introduced as a little pisser and a big mistake in the same breath?
Yes, I would have, because if she said she loved me and then acted that way I would have thought that was how you loved someone, and how someone should love you back.
During book club, people stated that Sayre was too normal, too “together” to have come from such trauma. They needed to see something broken in her to make it more realistic. While I agree that Sayre came out of her situation a little too “healthy”, I also truly believe in resiliency. Studies have shown that having one caring, responsible adult in a child’s life can make all the difference. This evidence is why mentoring programs are popular and receive funding. In my mind, Sayre had a few of these adults scattered throughout her life. Her grandmother, Ms. Mo, Beale and his mother. People I think the reader should experience rather than me telling you about them here. Because of these characters, Sayre experienced sprinkles of hope, love and compassion. These moments may have been enough…Of course, if the author were to write a follow-up novel, I expect some borderline personality traits, therapy, anxiety issues…something. ;)
It’s obvious I have many thoughts about this book. If you made it through all of them, you deserve a cookie! I could no doubt talk about it in-depth for hours, but I will sum it up here: There are moments of joy and utter heartbreak. You may smile, cry, scream, gasp, laugh, sigh. Gut-wrenching sob fest. You may question the ability of people to continue on in such dire environments. You may be inspired by Sayre’s perseverance and sheer will to survive and overcome. I was.
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