In a time where the majority of young adult fiction focuses on the supernatural, the fantastical, and the dystopian, Jennifer Castle walks down another, more familiar path in her debut novel, THE BEGINNING OF AFTER – one that every teenager has either experienced or worries about experiencing.
At 16, Laurel is just another teenage girl. She has parents who love her in their own quirky ways, a brother who annoys her, a best friend who is there for her through thick and thin, and a high school life that is, simply stated, average. Everything changes after a Passover dinner when Laurel decides homework and prepping for the SATs are more important than getting ice cream for dessert. A neighbor drives his wife, Laurel’s parents, and Laurel’s brother to the ice cream shop but only Mr. Kaufman returns in a comatose state.
What follows is Laurel’s attempt at returning to life – what seems like her success only for a roller coaster ride to begin with as many ups and downs as it can handle. Through it all, people arrive in her life, though Laurel’s never entirely sure of their agendas – if there even is one. As she says at one point,
That was it. The end of Before, and the beginning of After.
Castle writes poignant scenes that have the ability to reach out to each reader and make him or her understand the depth of emotions Laurel feels. There are no vampires or faeries, only the in-crowd and guidance counselors and boys. There are Regent exams and college applications and part-time jobs instead of fights and death and superpowers. THE BEGINNING OF AFTER is real. It is the life of a high school junior and senior. There is a steady pulse that beats throughout the book, one that makes a reader connect to the circumstances.
Just as real are the characters who are imperfect like any person living in the “real world.” Laurel thinks she’s okay but sometimes questions her motives. Nana, who moves to live with Laurel in her son’s house, seems like a no-nonsense lady but her hidden emotions strike quickly at the heart. David, Mr. Kaufman’s son, is the only one who can truly understand what Laurel is going through, but the relationship between the two teenagers is tumultuous and, sometimes, barely even present. There are outbursts and hurt feelings. There are secrets to be kept and growth to be done.
The one (minor) issue I had with the novel was that it left me wanting a bit more. There is closure to everything in the novel, however, so perhaps it is a testament to Castle’s storytelling that I crave to know what happens after Laurel’s After. Everything else – the highs, the lows, the setting, the characters, the relationships – is almost too good to be true but the novel is there for readers to breathe in and enjoy.
Already, Castle’s debut is being compared to Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY and while it is a brilliant comparison, I find myself appreciating the writing of THE BEGINNING OF AFTER more if only because it is told completely in the present tense. And while I didn’t cry during my reading of this novel, I felt the tightness of emotion throughout the entire book. THE BEGINNING OF AFTER, to me, is what young adult novels should strive to be. It is a steady thrum of life that doesn’t rely on fads and fantasy (though I love those as well as can be seen in this blog). Castle uses words to captivate her audience in a way only few authors are able to do.