Author: Laura Nowlin
Published: April 1, 2013
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Rating: 1 star
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“I've loved him my whole life, and somewhere along the way, that love didn't change but grew. It grew to fill the parts of me that I did not have when I was a child. It grew with every new longing of my body and desire until there was not a piece of me that did not love him. And when I look at him, there is no other feeling in me.”My Thoughts
― Laura Nowlin, If He Had Been With Me
If he had been with me, he wouldn't have died.
Throughout their whole childhood, Finn and Autumn were inseparable—they finished each other's sentences, they knew just what to say when the other person was hurting. But one incident in middle school puts them in separate social worlds come high school, and Autumn has been happily dating James for the last 2 years. But she's always wondered what if...
The night she's about to get the answer is also one of terrible tragedy. (Goodreads)
I must prepare you. This is going to be a really negative review. I had been looking forward to If He Had Been With Me because I was seeing positive reviews and I thought this premise had real potential. But this book was such a disappointment, and I really struggled to finish it despite its short length.
If He Had Been With Me tells the story of Autumn, a teenage girl in a committed relationship with one person but still torn by her feelings for her childhood friend, Finn. Finn and Autumn were inseparable when they were younger, but as the years passed, they fell in with different crowds and became distanced from each other. I think I would have been more invested in this story if I had felt something for the protagonist Autumn. If I had felt anything. But Autumn was unbearably annoying. She was shallow and immature, and at times, I found it difficult to believe that she was any older than five. I understand that she's grown up with a depressed, possibly suicidal mother and her parents have a rocky relationship, but I could not bring myself to feel any sympathy for her, try as hard as I might. She was self-absorbed and could have used some humility, as she says at one point that she is much more attractive than her close friend. Actually, she says she knows she is more beautiful than her friend, as if it is an irrefutable fact. Plus, Autumn is characterized as kind of an odd bird, but she's not weird in an endearing way. She's just really strange, making it even harder for the reader to connect to her. She's spacey and extremely naive. She misses things that are glaringly obvious. By the end of the book, I was relieved that my acquaintance with Autumn had come to an end.
When I wasn't annoyed with Autumn's absurd behavior, I found the line breaks really distracting. Throughout the entire book, the text is divided into small passages that end abruptly. I could find absolutely no rhyme or reason to these line breaks, which left me feeling frustrated. I can understand using frequent line breaks when they serve a purpose, such as to convey a character's limited mental faculties or a serious mental disorder, but in this case, neither is true. There were simply too many line breaks, and it left me feeling like the plot was fractioned into little pieces when nothing had changed plot wise from passage to passage. In fact, very little happened in If He Had Been With Me. Most of the book was about Autumn hanging out with her friends and witnessing Finn hanging out with his separate group of friends and wandering what if? Nowlin mentions a "war" that occurs between the two groups, but I'd hardly call a little squabble over a cafeteria table a war.
If He Had Been With Me was such a slow read, and I found the premise to be misleading, considering Finn isn't featured nearly enough in this book. In fact, I thought Autumn and Finn's relationship was put on a back burner for other plot developments. The reader learns much more about Autumn's friends, including her obnoxious boyfriend Jamie. If it wasn't for the frequent sexual references, I could have mistaken If He Had Been With Me for a middle grade novel. It's not that I object to its middle grade feel; it just wasn't what I usually look for in a book. There were no descriptive details and the writing style was very simplistic. We went here. And then we did this. And so on... The only reason I wouldn't recommend it to middle graders is because it touches on many sensitive topics, such as suicide, death, teen pregnancy, unprotected sex, and depression. But instead of digging deeper into one or any of these topics, Nowlin seems to skim over them, and the situations in which they appear are not altogether realistic. When the one girl confesses that she has been knocked up by her boyfriend, her friends handle the news almost casually. I didn't buy it at all.
The only thing that kept me reading, the only character I cared about, was Finn. While Finn was almost too perfect to be believable, I found him to be an improvement on the other characters. Even though I knew that ending was coming, I still was not fully prepared for the emotional punch it packed. I think I was in denial, hoping that events could somehow change and that the story would unfold in a different way. It's like when I rewatch The Lion King. I know how it plays out, but each time, I still hope that Mufasa won't die. Maybe it's naive and unrealistic, but I take some small comfort in hoping that these stories are mutable. Of course, my hopes were crushed and events did not deviate from their fated path. While the ending reached a much-needed climax, it still was just as disappointing as the rest of the book. Emotions escalated, bad stuff happened, and then it abruptly finished on a positive note when I could find no reason why the protagonist should feel optimistic. Shit just hit the fan majorly, but for the first time in the entire book, Autumn feels mentally stable? I just have no idea.
Ultimately, If He Had Been With Me fell far below my high expectations, and I will have to remember to be more cautious in the future when selecting books, no matter how attractive the cover or appealing the premise. If you're into immature narrators and a fast paced coming of age story spanning four high school years (yes, all four high school years are squeezed into this short book), then I would say give it a try, but otherwise, it's not a must-read.