I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 10th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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A stunning novel about the transformative power of love, perfect for fans of Jay Asher and Laurie Halse Anderson.
Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.
There's only one problem: she's not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel's convinced she's found her solution--Roman, a teenage boy who's haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other's broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together.
I came really close to DNFing this book at 96% on principle alone because I was fed one thing in the beginning of the novel, only to be force fed something entirely different by the end. My Heart and Other Black Holes had so much potential–a lot of novel accurately described what it feels like to be depressed. So I was expecting a novel about discovering yourself, overcoming depression and finding something to live for. I was excited for it because it’s a topic that needs more awareness and understanding. And for about 60% of the book, I got just that, but somewhere along the way, My Heart and Other Black Holes got ridiculously lost and confused. What happened?
Be warned: Unhidden spoilers and very personal feelings ahead.
Aysel is battling depression in the aftermath of a public tragedy that befell her family. Her father murdered their small town’s star athlete, and as a result Aysel carries a burden of guilt of the incident. There’s also a part of her that wonders if she, too, will end up like her father. She suffers in silence, never allowing anyone in, even former friends that stood by her after the tragedy, convincing herself that it’s for their benefit to not be associated with her. In fact, she’s convinced her own mother and siblings would be better off without her, too, going as far to remind her younger sister that they are half-siblings whenever she can.
Her pain is real, and as someone who has suffered from depression and social isolation for the past 7 years and anxiety issues for longer than I can remember, I could relate to the “black slug” that she continues to reference throughout the novel. Depression is a hard thing to describe to someone who has never experienced it, and until I personally dealt with it, I can honestly say that I had no idea. Even to this day, I find it difficult to fully explain it to my husband who, bless his little heart, tries his very best to be as understanding as humanly possible. Fully understanding would involve him feeling this heavy thing and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, let alone him. But it’s great that he listens and it’s even better that he’s there and has that want to understand. So as I was reading, I found little quotes that perfectly described feelings that I’ve felt and I read them out loud to him.
Depression is like a heaviness that you can’t ever escape. It crushes down on you, making even the smallest things like tying your shoes or chewing on toast seem like a twenty-mile hike uphill. Depression is a part of you; it’s in your bones and your blood. If I know anything about it, this is what I know: It’s impossible to escape.
Aysel’s voice felt very true to her situation and worked well with a topic as heavy as this. It never felt like it needed more or less of that something for me to connect with what Aysel was saying because I completely understood where she was coming from. I’ve been there; I’m still there.
What people never understand is that depression isn’t about the outside; it’s about the inside. Something inside me is wrong. Sure, there are things in my life that make me feel alone, but nothing makes me feel more isolated and terrified than my own voice in my head.
I also loved how Roman described how he felt about missing his little sister because it reminds me of how I feel when I think of my little brother.
The hardest moments are when I miss her in the future.
After my brother passed away, for a long time, I had moments where it was like a part of my mind was still in denial. I’d see a commercial and absentmindedly think, “Oh man, wait till I tell Steve about this” and then remember that I couldn’t do that and have a long cry. Sometimes I still do that and it hurts so much because life has gone on without him, I’ve gone on without him, and that feels wrong and unfair. So I completely related to Roman’s grief of losing a sibling. And strangely, even though, this book made me remember certain feelings, it never depressed me. It was more like a bunch of “I know that feel, bro” moments while reading.
This is where Warga excels in My Heart and Other Black Holes and why the first 50% is so dead on. It’s also why I said I was loving it around that marker.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there.
Sometimes I just want to have a heart to heart with the book I’m reading. I want to invite it to tea and a spot on my comfy couch and tell them one thing: Look, I know you’re a YA novel, but you don’t always have to have a romance.
With the introduction to Roman, a boy who Aysel finds on a Suicide Partners forum, we get romance. Now, this is partly my fault, because if I actually read blurbs like a normal person before starting a book, I would have seen this part and ran the other way:
Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each others’ broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together.
This is problematic for me on so many levels.
I want to make this clear: I am not saying any of this is authorial intent. As soon as you introduce teenage romance to a a topic as heavy as this, you run this risk of it being romanticized. I saw moments of this when Roman started saying things like:
“You’re you. You get it. you get all of it. And you’re sad like me, and screwed up as that is, it’s pretty beautiful.” He reaches over and brushes his hand across my face, touching my hair. “You’re like a gray sky. You’re beautiful, even though you don’t want to be.”
This gave me pause because one of the reasons why Roman liked Aysel was because she was depressed and wanted to kill herself. But I was willing to let this go because at this point it seemed like only Roman had these twisted feelings while Aysel was bothered by it.
But he was wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to be. But I never wanted to be beautiful because I was sad. FrozenRobot of all people should know that there is nothing beautiful or endearing or glamorous about sadness. Sadness is only ugly, and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t get it.
I was further bothered when other characters started pairing the couple off, telling them they looked cute together. But I still had hope because Aysel hadn’t completely lost her grip on reality… yet.
If I have a boyfriend, his name is Death. And I’m pretty sure Roman is in love with him, too. It’s like a love triangle gone wrong. Or maybe it’s a love triangle gone right: we both get the guy on April 7.
I would have much preferred if the romance was left completely out. What Aysel needed was understanding and a person she could talk to. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about depression, it’s that it can’t be conquered alone. Having someone who can relate to your own situation, who knows exactly how you’re feeling, without having to spell it out to them, is invaluable. I have a person like that in my life and she is amazing and thoughtful and strong and she’s probably reading this review right now, wondering if I’m talking about her. (Yes, it’s you, Kat.) I literally don’t know what I’d do if I had never met her. She is my person. So I get the need for her to connect to someone. It does help, but this needed to be accomplished without romanticizing the situation and it wasn’t.
It’s basically the same way I felt about The Fault in Our Stars: great idea, but the romance distracted from the central conflict and somehow made it all about their love. (Which is why I’ve been saying that Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a much better alternative to The Fault in Our Stars.) Introducing this romance cheapened the story and the connection I thought I had to the characters. All of a sudden Roman is kissing Aysel, telling her how he wishes things could be different for them in another universe, but that she better not flake out on him come April 7th, that it changes nothing. It went from Aysel overcoming her demons and finding a reason to live to I’m in love with Roman, but he still wants to kill himself, let me save him with the new found love in my heart. And just no.
2. Love is the Cure-All
There comes a point in My Heart and Other Black Holes where Aysel has this AH-HA moment (ironically, sometime after kissing Roman–gag me) and decides she really doesn’t want to die after all. Apparently, all it took was someone telling her it wasn’t her fault for what her father did and she magically gets over her depression. Why? Because someone she has grown to care about accepted her and changed her in less than a month. There was way too much change in her attitude and outlook on life and not enough catalyst to justify it. That deeply bothered me.
I understand that she made a commitment to be stronger than her sadness, it was a great start. But depression is more than just sadness and is not something you can just decide to “get over” one day, especially if you’ve been suffering for years and are at the point where you are contemplating suicide. If the word “sad” were a bucket, depression would overflow it ten times over. Being depressed isn’t a choice, it’s a disease, a war within yourself. One where everyday is its own battle. It’s not something that can be overcome by love alone. As awesome as that sounds, it’s unrealistic.
3. Loose Ends
Aysel did have people in her life who was trying to reach out to her before Roman entered into the picture. Instead of the reader seeing Aysel get the closure she’s been desperately craving, we get Aysel worried over Roman and his suicide attempt. Of course, this is why the romance felt so out of place and inappropriate to me: it monopolized the central conflict–Aysel’s battle–and morphed into it being about Aysel saving Roman with love.
What I wanted was more closure with Aysel and her family. I was hoping we’d get to see them visiting her dad, finally letting her sister Georgia into her life, reconnecting with her mother, seeing a doctor for her problems. Asyel’s broken family life was one of the biggest things that led to her depression and I was very disappointed to see this not addressed in the end. (Side note: I am scratching my head at Aysel’s mother’s decision making. She willingly left her daughter with her father knowing that he had violent tendencies? Never reached out to her further when she got remarried and had more kids? And then she was shocked to learn about her depression? Shocked that Aysel didn’t come to her? HUH?)
By that time I was at 96% of the novel, I wanted to rage quit because I knew the book couldn’t pull off what I needed it to. I was right because the final scene is full of Roman in the hospital after his failed suicide attempt and Aysel there confessing her love.
“Because loving you saved me. It’s made me see myself differently, see the world differently. I owe you everything for that.”
So much no.
My Heart and Other Black Holes could have been amazing. It could have been the book I’d recommend to really help people understand what it feels like to be depressed. The descriptions of grief were spot on and genuine. But the glamorized-suicidal-romantic-teen-love-fest killed any hope of redemption. I love a hope-filled story as much as the next person, and oh how I wish depression could just be cured with a little bit of love. I wish loving my husband and kids and them loving me in return could fix me. Love is a lot of things, but it is not a magic pill. This is real life, and real life is a lot more complicated and messy than that. What My Heart and Other Black Holes does do is give off a false hope with the road it took to achieving it almost impossible to attain. And that, frankly, depresses the hell out of me.