Book Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

All graphics used in this post are originals created by me using some of my favorite quotes from We Are Okay. 🙂

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I consumed We Are Okay like it was a giant glass of iced tea and I had just been trekking through the desert. You know how sometimes you will come across a book that for some reason is exactly what you need right in that moment? That was We Are Okay for me. For whatever reason, it was exactly what I needed right now, and it nearly made my heart explode with how good it was.

But read on for further detail. I swear I can be specific, and not just gush overly enthusiastically. Let’s delve in, and of course, I’ll warn you before there are spoilers!

We Are Okay is about freshman college student Marin, who has recently started a new life at college in New York. Now, we all talk about “starting new” when we leave the nest for the first time and embark on that journey of higher education, but Marin has really, really started new. When she left for college, she didn’t even leave from home. She left from a police station, and all she had was her wallet, her phone, and a photo of her mother. Once in New York, she had to start from scratch.

I know, right? Already there’s so much intrigue happening here, and yet let me be clear that We Are Okay is not a mystery novel. This is not some indulgent, bloody murder mystery, or a psychological suspense thriller of some sort. It’s a well thought-out, well done, heartfelt YA contemporary with a lot of intrigue and a lot of layers to peel back and discover. There’s definitely some stuff going on with Marin…it just takes time to find out what.

So here’s what we know at the beginning: Marin is originally from San Francisco, California, but is attending college in New York. Marin’s grandfather died right before she left for college, but there’s some sort of mystery surrounding her grandfather and something she found out at the end of his life that makes her feel as though she didn’t really know him. Marin’s best friend is Mabel, but Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel since she left California (despite Mabel’s continuous efforts to text and call). Marin is staying on campus over winter break (she is the only one doing so), and Mabel is coming to visit for the three days before Christmas. Even though they’re best friends, something is going on that makes things awkward and tense between them.

All of these little bits of Marin’s life are like the very ends of strings that you want to grab onto and follow through the book, until all the bits of strings braid together into one, collusive story, which is exactly what happens. But to be clear, even if we never figured out what was going on, or what happened with Gramps, or what happened between Marin and Mabel, I would have devoured this book just for the writing itself. I was that in love. (And, unlike a lot readers I know, I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity. Sometimes I actually even prefer it.)

So, at the beginning of the book, Marin’s roommate, Hannah, leaves for winter break, Marin spends a little time completely alone at the dorms, and then Mabel arrives for her visit. In between each current chapter, we have a flashback to the summer months leading up to Marin’s flee for New York, and each flashback helps us learn more about Marin and helps us to start braid together all the pieces of string and figure out what happened.

We Are Okay is written from Marin’s point of view, which was such a fantastic writing choice on LaCour’s part, because the voice in this is so strong and so authentic and just so, so genuine. This may be one of the most authentic voices I’ve read all year. Marin’s narration immediately drew me in, folded me into her thoughts and detailed observations, and kept me nestled comfortably there for the rest of the book. Nothing about Marin seems contrived, overdone, or trope-y in any way. Even just spending time with her in the dorms when she was by herself, I was so captivated. Alone in the building, she talks about the temptation of climbing into bed and just nesting in her blankets for all of winter break, and I think there are so many readers who can relate to that temptation so perfectly.

But one of the most powerful scenes perhaps in the whole book is when Marin looks around her dorm and realizes that her side of the room is empty and bland, whereas her roommate’s side is bursting with color and personalization. Concerned about how this will look to Mabel when she arrives, she embarks on a mission to decorate her bulletin board so that it looks more lived in, typing out some of her favorite quotes, printing out pictures of the moon and salamander and crystals, and then spends all this time arranging them on her bulletin board, tacking them up just so. And then when she’s finished, she takes it all back down and throws it away, because it looks too new, and it doesn’t look genuine, and she knows that she can’t fool her Mabel. This scene was so perfectly written and so powerful, and for some reason, really reminded me of something I would do. In that short moment, just a few pages near the beginning of the book, I felt like I already knew Marin so well, and could feel for what she was going through.

 

This attention to detail is one of the best things about LaCour’s writing, in my opinion. In addition to using it to build characterization, I also fell in love with the way LaCour used it to make one thing clear: Marin has anxiety. As someone who suffers from anxiety myself, I feel I can speak to the way that Marin’s anxiety is portrayed in this book, and it so spot on, and one of the best portrayals of anxiety in YA that I have ever seen. So many times characters who have anxiety end up being portrayed as so over the top, or writers feel the need to come right out and tell us, “This character has anxiety,” or “This character is doing this because they are anxious.” LaCour never once takes that tactic, and yet I got the message clearly. The way Marin overthinks things that seem like they should be simple (opening an envelope, for example, or taking Mabel to a store she loves) or the way she dissects things in her mind, such as the look in a cashier’s eyes, or the place she and Mabel choose to sit in a café, which led to one of my favorite lines in the book:

“She leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.”

Not only is this so authentic for someone who thinks things straight into the ground, but it also shows us that Marin is so aware, almost to the point of being self-deprecating—but not annoyingly so.

Marin talks about she goes to her school’s swimming pool and how she will sometimes just float, how it helps calm her panic to just float and let all the sounds become foggy and distant, but when she can’t do that, she relies on her roommate, Hannah, who will read to her from her textbooks or just talk to her about something until Marin is able to focus again.

“I learn that I am a tiny piece of a miraculous world. I make myself understand, again, that I am in a dorm room at a college. That what happened has happened. It’s over. Doubt pushes in, but I use our twin beds and desks and closets, the four walls around us, the girls who neighbor us on both sides and the ones who neighbor them, the whole building and the campus and the state of New York to fend doubt off.”

Her descriptions of the ways she feels, the things she overthinks, and the way it feels to come back down from that…I can’t say it enough, they’re just so genuine. So genuine and so understated. I think I was able to relate to Marin’s anxiety more than any other character’s anxiety that I’ve read, and I was so grateful for that. I was so glad to see it not portrayed as over the top or to see an author have a character with anxiety act like someone who is essentially a stark-raving lunatic—because that’s not what it’s like. That’s not what it’s like at all. And we need these sorts of representations in fiction. Because fiction mirrors real life, fiction tells the truth, and we need writers like LaCour who can curate that truth appropriately.

“There is the clink of Mabel setting our dinner bowls into Tommy’s sink, and the exhaustion that comes with knowing that something will have to happen next, and then after that, and on and on until it’s over.”

Setting also plays a very strong role in We Are Okay, and LaCour does an excellent job of creating a believable and immersive setting on both coasts of the United States, in California and New York. Much like her characterization, LaCour never goes over the top with the setting, but still manages to make it believable by interjecting meaningful details. For example, in California, when she talks about how truly dark the beach is at night, which, if you’ve ever been on a beach, is so much more authentic than having a flawlessly moonlit night all the time, or some other kind of ambient lighting. Or in New York, when she talks about stepping into the freshly fallen snow and realizing it is up to their calves and how unprepared they were for it, and how the coldness of it hurts. These details helped me find the setting completely believable, without doing too much. As I got further and further into this book, it seemed more and more that LaCour’s specialty is using subtlety to make a major impact.

Which brings me to the next thing I found very admirable in this novel, but, before we discuss it, fair warning: spoilers ahead.

As you get a little further into the novel, you realize that part of the reason things between Marin and Mabel are so tense is because their friendship actually progressed into more of a romantic relationship right before Marin left, and then when Marin took off for New York, she ignored any and all communication from Mabel and anyone from California or her old life, almost as a sort of defense mechanism. Of course, one can assume this would be heartbreaking for both of them—on a romantic level, on a friendship level, and just on a human level of being confused about how you’re being treated or how you are treating someone else.

But one of the things I liked most about the romantic relationship between Marin and Mabel is the embracing of diversity in such an understated way. LaCour includes homosexuality and bisexuality in her novel as if they are just a simple part of life—because they are. I loved her inclusion and I loved the diversity, but more so than that, I just loved that she treated the relationship between Marin and Mabel the same way she would have treated a relationship between Marin and a guy. It was a romantic relationship, and it was a part of their lives. It got the same respect and brevity it deserved, and I very much admire her for handling it in the way she did. A lot of the complexity in the relationship lies in the fact that Marin and Mabel were first best friends, then romantically involved, and now are returning from that romantic relationship into a friendship again—something which can be extremely difficult to navigate both in real life and in writing, but LaCour does it very gracefully.

I have very few actual criticisms of this book, though I could see how some readers might say they were disappointed in the reveal of Gramps’s big mystery, or what the betrayal turned out to be. While it wasn’t some huge CSI or horror movie reveal, like Gramps was secretly a serial killer or something, it was enough that I could see how it would impact Marin’s view of things, and how it could make her question what she thought she knew. I thought it went very well with the understated but impactful overall tone of the book as a whole.

The only thing I was ever so slightly disappointed in is the fact that in the end, it almost seems as though Marin has a really convenient “happy ending” or “happily ever after” type wrap up (even though I was rooting for Marin and wanted the best for her), but upon further reflection, I don’t think the happy ending was overdone, either. For the most part, it was realistic, and there is a distinct sense that even though things may be taking a turn for the better, there’s a still long way to go. Marin still has a lot to learn, a lot to experience, and a lot of complicated things to navigate in life, and I think the author makes that clear.

I could gush about how gorgeous and well-written this book is forever, but I know I have to wrap it up some time, so I’ll end this review by simply saying this: read this book. It is wonderful. It is amazing. It is beautiful.

If I were to give this book a star rating, I could confidently give this five out of five stars with no hesitation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy every other book Nina LaCour has ever written. NBD.

What about everyone else? Have you read We Are Okay? What did you think of it? Are you as in love as I am? Let me know in the comments. You know I’d love to talk. <3

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