I don’t read contemporary YA often, only when the story sounds really appealing to me. Some of my favourite reads *are* contemporary, however. Like Something Real by Heather Demetrios, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, and I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. When I read the premise to In Search of Us by Ava Dellaira, I knew I had to get myself this book. A mother and a daughter, both at the age of 17, centered around the same mystery of what happened to biracial Angie’s black father back in the ’70s. I’ve heard great things about her earlier novel, Love Letters to the Dead, although I’ve not yet gotten around to reading that one.
I liked In Search of Us a lot. I loved the way it was written, and I really liked both Angie’s and Marilyn’s storylines. The idea of doing two stories in which both mother and daughter are the same age, is such a powerful one. We never really see our parents as having been our age, having the same hopes and dreams and doubts that we do. Angie too must come to the painful conclusion that parents don’t know everything, and they certainly don’t always know best. They make mistakes.
This juxtaposition between the two girls really resonated with me. Especially because everything that Marilyn does, has a direct impact on Angie’s life. Not just some unknown child she will later have, but the girl we follow through her own struggles simultaneously. You feel Angie’s pain caused by the absence of her father, and her frustration about not knowing a single thing about him. Marilyn, whether or not it happens on purpose, caused it. But Marilyn too is just a girl trying to find love in a place where she is most unhappy. And you root for her when she meets James, even though we know from the start it can’t end well.
The tension builds up really well in In Search of Us. As Angie comes closer and closer to meeting her uncle and getting her answers, we as readers also get to the point where everything goes horribly wrong for Marilyn and James. You won’t know what happens until we actually reach that scene, but I must admit it isn’t difficult to guess. It’s the ’70s, and they are a white girl and black boy. There are only so many ways this story can go. In the end, it’s not exactly what you think it’s going to be, but near enough. It ties in quite well with the current problems in America, and it’s a really potent scene.
I do think the book missed some opportunities for depth. It is clear that Angie’s inability to tell Sam she loves him comes from her fathers absence, but this is never explored. It’s touched upon, but it could have created a lot of depth for Angie, who is really one-directional in this novel. It’s all about finding her father or some remnant of him. It’s the issue at hand, sure, but it could have been laid out in a broader sense.
The same goes for Marilyn. I fully believe that you are devastated when you lose someone like that, but her grief over James has a touch of melodrama. If Angie is to be believed, it is all she thinks about – it still consumes her on a regular basis. But at the same time, Angie is her everything. She is described as having single-mindedly done everything to give her daughter an amazing life, to have enough money for her AND to be emotionally supportive. Those two parts of Marilyn don’t connect (even though it should be possible to be both). I think it’s because we rarely get a scene in which the two are together.
Here I mention the thing I missed most in this book: the interaction between these two women who have shared 17 years of life together. We only ever see Marilyn through Angie’s eyes in a few flashbacks all centered around the loss of James. And when they meet up at the end of the novel, it’s brief and they barely have time for a meaningful conversation. At this point, Marilyn’s whole storyline suddenly starts to feel rushed. We discover that she has kept Angie from James’ family and we only get shock, guilt and shame as an explanation as to why.
Marilyn has seen first hand how important family is to James and his relatives. That they already suffered great loss. Marilyn was alone, with no money, no education and no job. Whenever she fled her life in the past, she went to James’ family. But she decided no to at the conclusion of her 17-year-old storyline and we don’t get to see why she decides this. It feels as if a chunk of Marilyn’s story is left out, and I really wanted to know about that. If the book had gone on a few more chapters to resolve this, it would have gotten a full 4 stars from me.
In Search of Us is a great contemporary YA novel. It has a fresh way of storytelling and it has something for everyone. Family, drama, a mystery, racism, growing up. I really enjoyed reading it and I would definitely recommend it. I loved it as a non-contemporary reader. I think it could have delved deeper into the psyche of both Angie and Marilyn, expanded to really make these girls come to life. And also connect them to each other in the present, which isn’t in the book now. It’s a very deserved 3.5 (probably 3.75) stars.