Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Pieces of Us by Maggie Gelbwasser


Two families. Four teens.

A summer full of secrets.

Every summer, hidden away in a lakeside community in upstate New York, four teens leave behind their old identities…and escape from their everyday lives.

Yet back in Philadelphia during the school year, Alex cannot suppress his anger at his father (who killed himself), his mother (whom he blames for it), and the girls who give it up too easily. His younger brother, Kyle, is angry too—at his abusive brother, and at their mother who doesn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, Katie plays the role of Miss Perfect while trying to forget the nightmare that changed her life. But Julie, her younger sister, sees Katie only as everything she’s not. And their mother will never let Julie forget it.

Up at the lake, they can be anything, anyone. Free. But then Katie’s secret gets out, forcing each of them to face reality—before it tears them to pieces.


This is a rough book, hard even for me to stomach at times. With four different characters, all of whom have some pretty hefty stuff they're dealing with, it can feel almost overboard at times. In truth, this is a book that left me emotionally damaged for a few days, a book that I had to really mull over for a few days before I was okay with it. It is definitely not a book for everyone, but it's one that I feel people need to at least try, because once you get past the feeling of being utterly eviscerated it is, truly, stunning.

All four of the characters narrate various chapters, so at one time or another, there is nothing held back from the reader for each... including Alex. He is not a character that you are meant to root for, and like, and side with. He is misogynistic, degrading, and infuriating. It is uncomfortable to be in the mind of someone like this, to see the world how they do. Yet without his direct perspective, this would have been a very different book because honestly? I got him. At least, mostly. I could see how his motivations kept him going, even if they made no actual sense to me, even if I did not in any way agree, I understood how he believed them. How he could put a girl up on a pedestal for being a virgin, then hate her for giving it up, even if she loved the guy. How he could do some of the things he did, and seem to feel no remorse, yet then seem to be kicking himself harder than anyone, just quietly. I can't say I loved Alex's character, but I loved the execution of his character. And in truth, I don't think I have ever hated a character with such vitriol as I did Alex, which is really a mark of how well Gelbwasser has done his characterization.

Katie is a different story, a character to definitely get behind and root for. While some of what happened with her didn't quite make sense - the way she kept everything so quiet especially - I think her overall storyline is so well done, however gutting it may be. Watching her fall from the top, rescind into herself, and all but give up on everything was horrendous to watch, especially being stuck in her mind for much of it yet also seeing it through the others' eyes too. I love this character, from the way she has a backwards progression to the way everything plays out in the end with her. Rivaling that is her sister Julie, who also has a backwards progression of sorts, and a character who most definitely left me with mixed feelings. As well done as her sister and Alex, Julie plays a vital role in the book even when it seems like she's extraneous.

Then there's Kyle, Alex's younger brother who is, in my mind, the biggest victim of them all. His story shattered me in a way that others didn't. I wanted nothing more than to hug this boy, and protect him from the world. His characterization is so strikingly well done, so enamoring, that it cannot easily be summed up. I held no ill will towards him, only sorrow and a deep drive for him to find something better in his life. Does he make mistakes, stand back and let some awful things happen? Yes. But do I understand why, did I get angry at him? Not a single time, because Gelbwasser weaves in his motivations and mindset so strongly that it's impossible for me not to understand him.

This is a very character and emotion driven book, centered around these four. The ways their stories intersect and split off again, the timeline that can easily be followed of catalysts up to the bigger events... it's all so well done. Gelbwasser holds nothing back in this book, from the rough language to the various levels of abuse, both sexual and emotional, this book is pure grit. It can be overwhelming, and it's definitely not an easy book to get through, but it has a beautiful story in the pain and fabulous writing to go with it. From Alex's degrading mindset to Julie's shifting view of the world, Gelbwasser nails every one of them, with a distinct difference in each voice and a flowing narrative between them.

My biggest issue with this book was in the depth of silence Katie held, and the way it seemed as though not a single person really noticed what was going on with her. I had to wonder how it never occurred to her that some of the things would repeat themselves, and though I do understand that she wanted to just forget what happened, it still made me raise an eyebrow. Hitting just a tad on potentially unrealistic there, everything else about this book had a stellar execution. This is a book that I will probably never be able to read again, but definitely one that will always stay with me, and one that was well worth the rough ride.

Source: Netgalley 
Reading level: Ages 14 and up 
Paperback: 336 pages 
Publisher: Flux
Publication Date: March 8, 2012


  1. Wow, how have I not heard about this book before??? Thanks for the review, I'm adding to my TBR-list!

  2. This sounds like an incredibly intense book. I think I've seen this one on netgalley but didn't request it.

    I may have to give it a read. Great review!

    Nerd Girls at Books to the Sky

  3. I completely agree with you - Pieces of Us is so intense and well-written. It's dark and disturbing, and it kind of broke me, too - my mind was messed up for a few days after reading this book. Great review!