For the first time in a while, I’m experiencing a pretty severe book hangover. I spent a good chunk of yesterday (National Read a Book Day!) blasting through Emery Lord’s When We Collided, entranced by the writing, the characters, and the pacing of the story. Then, when it was over, I found myself in the kind of fog that only takes over after I’ve finished a book that’s definitely going to stick with me, even if it’s in small ways.
When We Collided, on its surface, is a summer romance. Vivi Alexander blows into Verona Cove, California, and wins over the entire town with her whimsical ways and thirst for adventure. She especially enchants Jonah Daniels, a seventeen year-old boy attempting to keep the remains of his family together after the death of his father.
But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the romance between Vivi and Jonah is not the focus of the story at all. Instead, the book explores mental illness and depression, the difficulty of caring for others while also caring for yourself, and the necessity of making difficult decisions in life in order to thrive.
Major spoilers ahead! Don’t read further if you don’t want to know how this book ends!
When We Collided alternates points of view between Vivi and Jonah each chapter. The narration style for each character struck me in different ways: Vivi’s is all colorful language and extended metaphors while Jonah’s is more straightforward and practical, a demonstration of facts rather than an exploration of what could be.
I found myself enthralled by both characters. I fell in love with Vivi’s determination to explore every piece of life to its fullest without getting bogged down by things like relationship labels and clearly-defined roles for herself. I also fell in love with Jonah’s determination to help his family in whatever ways he can, finding solace in things like cooking and, after they meet, spending time with Vivi.
Through the course of their separate narration, author Emery Lord reveals that Jonah’s mother is suffering severe depression after the loss of her husband. Lord also reveals that Vivi has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, and is supposed to be on medication to regulate both. Vivi’s mental illness isn’t discussed as something shameful or as something that can be cured by her falling in love with Jonah, which is really refreshing. I’ve read so many young adult novels where the Manic Pixie Dream Person saves the main character from their mental illness with the Power of Love.
In When We Collided, neither Jonah nor Vivi save each other from the dark realities of their lives. They do make certain things better, and easier to deal with — in my experience, that isn’t unrealistic. Having and holding relationships when you are mentally ill isn’t impossible, but it does require work and care and an understanding that some days, no amount of distraction or physical affection can quiet the demons in your head. On the other hand, some days, the simple presence of the person you love can make things feel a hundred times easier. This balance, which isn’t always easy to maintain, was explored really well in Lord’s writing.
Lord also made it clear that just because a person has a mental illness doesn’t mean they should be handled with kid gloves. People have agency. Jonah learns, through Vivi, that the way he and his siblings have been handling his mother’s depression — by tip-toeing around it, always trying to make things as easy as possible for her — isn’t really the right way to go about it. Vivi encourages him to ask his mother what she needs, and to listen.
I found myself struck hard by a lot of moments in this book, because the characters felt very real and very raw. Even when the relationship between Vivi and Jonah first starts and everything seems like it should be rose-colored and perfect, the ever-present stress of the Daniels’ family situation isn’t diluted or pushed aside. Vivi’s prescriptions are discussed very frankly between her and her mother. There are several allusions to her past that aren’t made clear until nearly the end of the book, but that feels less like Lord holding out for shock factor and more like Lord trying to explore the present without clinging to the past, which is what Vivi does throughout the entire book.
What I liked most about this book, to be honest, is that there isn’t a happy ending for the romantic couple. Vivi, very realistically, makes the choice to move back home to Seattle to continue her medical care and try to pursue a healthier lifestyle. She spends much of the book telling everyone how badly she wants to stay in Verona Cove past the summer, but it’s obvious for a number of reasons that it isn’t the best choice for her. Meanwhile, Jonah stays in Verona Cove, where he’s lived his whole life, and though he does try to suggest doing a long-distance relationship with Vivi, Vivi says no.
It’s a really painful conversation, but one that I was so glad to read.
My experience with young adult, contemporary novels is that one of two things has to happen in order to satisfactorily wrap up the ending of a story involving mental illness and romance: 1) the couple stays together and “fixes” each other or 2) someone dies, usually the girl. Though Vivi does get seriously hurt at the end of this book, she survives the accident, has a frank conversation with a therapist about how she can move forward, and then breaks up with her summer boyfriend for the betterment of them both. It’s so well done.
Also unlike other young adult books in this vein, Lord allows there to be another romantic interest for Jonah that isn’t an active romantic interest in the book itself. His friendship with Ellie, his late father’s business partner’s daughter, is one of lifelong friends who’ve grown up together. Vivi expresses jealousy over it, which Jonah assures her repeatedly is unfounded, and Vivi has a private thought later in the book that someday, he’ll love Ellie in a way he probably doesn’t understand yet.
When Vivi and Jonah discuss a future together, she tells him that she’s imagined a ton of different scenarios where they do or don’t end up together. She repeatedly says that they have to live their lives now and let things happen as they will. It’s something Jonah clearly struggles with, but eventually seems to accept.
The suggestion of life beyond the borders of this book is really cool to read, because it makes When We Collided feel like it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Vivi and Jonah part ways at the end of the book and Lord sets up several different ways that their lives could go, some of them more fantastical than others. But the point is that their lives will keep going, and they’ll always have some part of each other inside them, but that doesn’t mean they have to be forever.
I don’t know if anything that I’ve said here is particularly coherent, but what I want to say is this: Emery Lord has crafted a story in When We Collided that gives me hope for future books written in its genre where the main romantic pairing doesn’t save each other from things that aren’t inherently evil, i.e. mental illness. She’s also given me characters to think about in the days (and probably weeks) to come, as well as a story that I’ll surely be re-reading in the near future.
Overall rating: ★★★★★
Recommended for: People who are tired of the Manic Pixie Dream Person trope, which should realistically be everyone