Rating: ♥ ♥
Content Warnings: Gun violence, gangs, anxiety, death, grief & loss of family members and suicide
I know a lot of you will probably want to shit on me for writing a less-than-perfect review of this book, but I have existential depression and that’s why I feel a lot of the things I do about it, so hear me out. I really wanted to like Adam Silvera’s new speculative fiction novel They Both Die at the End, which follows the stories of Rufus and Mateo, two boys who meet on a Last Friend app on the day they both will die. I wanted to love this book like my friends did, but it just kind of left me numb. I emotionally disconnected from the narrative early on and by the end, I wasn’t crying or feeling sad. I was just kind of exhausted and numb and angry at the time I’d spent reading it, to be honest.
I don’t want to rob anyone of their enjoyment of the book. If you loved it, that’s valid and I’m happy for you. I wish I was one of those people because I loved More Happy than Not and I think Adam is a wonderful author and person.
My biggest issue with this book was that it felt like there was no point to me reading this story about boys who could have this great “day of self-discovery” and know they’re going to die. I’m sorry. It felt like a waste. A waste of their characters. A waste of a story. A waste of my time. I get that this was supposed to be a book about learning to make the most of your life and live every day to the fullest, but I just wasn’t here for it. It wasn’t just depressing. It was infuriating. I get that kids and teenagers die all the time, that life isn’t fair. I think that books about death (i.e. Marieke Nijkamp’s emotionally harrowing novel This is Where it Ends) have value. Still, TBDATE felt empty and hollow to me in the same way you feel cheated when you open up a fortune cookie to discover there’s nothing inside.
I’ve watched my closest family member waste away and die. I’ve passed by accidents on the Garden State Parkway as they’re draping a blanket over someone’s body. One of my earliest memories is 9/11. Death bothers me down to the bone. It is not something I am comfortable discussing or imagining, beyond a few darkly humorous jokes. I reacted to TBDATE in a similar way to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. As soon as I know there’s no hope for the main characters, I check out and I can’t connect to the characters or the story because I have to protect my brain. These books will drag my depressed brain into a deep, dark hole if I don’t keep that wall up.
This book messed with my head a lot. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I have existential depression, which means that I feel struck by hopelessness and worthlessness when I think about my place in the world and how small I am compared to everything. Reading a book about two boys who are told they are going to die and have no opportunity to fight that gutted me, because life became meaningless for them, too. Sure, they tried to have a good day. Sure, they made some amazing memories. But it meant nothing, in the end, not really, and just traumatized all the secondary characters in their lives for no other reason than to be a plot device and provide some conciliatory message about hope. It also really bothered me that Rufus and Mateo were two queer PoC who didn’t even get a shot at a happy ending.
My other issue with this book is that while the Leteo Institute in More Happy Than Not was believable, the entire time line and way this world was set up doesn’t make much sense. There’s no back story for the sudden development of this Death-Cast thing, which is heralded as “progress.” If anything, this is a novel about why “progress” is often bullshit. Anyway. Death-Cast calls you on the day you’ll die. However, this call makes you live your life differently that day and might set you up to make decisions that ultimately lead to your death. This happens to quite a few characters in the book. So, that means that in this world, there is no free will. Because one, you don’t get a chance to challenge this “pre-destined” death and two, if the call leads to you dying, than death is foreseeable and thus the entire space-time continuum is set in stone with no room for change. Many faiths (Christianity included) hinge their beliefs on the notion that we are able to make choices, that we are in charge of our fates, that we have free will and the ability to redeem ourselves. For me, that is what makes religion so empowering. In this world, that can’t possibly exist and even the churches are suspicious of Death-Cast. That’s because you basically have to be 17th-century Puritan believing in predetermination or a Nihilist for this world order to gel with yours. I know I’m reading into it. This is why speculative fiction doesn’t work for me when I can’t completely connect with it.
Overall, the entire cast of characters seemed kind of blah. The fact that Mateo and Rufus didn’t have living, conscious parents seemed kind of cheap. Lidia, Mateo’s best friend, was okay, I guess. I couldn’t tell Rufus’ friends Malcolm and Tagoe apart, to be honest. There were a lot of different view points, which was nice for a while, but became kind of confusing and just added to what felt like the pointlessness of this book. I even stopped caring when characters died. Usually when I’m reading, the world feels real and I like to imagine the characters living on after the end, but TBDATE just felt like ink on paper and I was relieved when I reached the end because it was over and I could say I read it.
I think that covers the main stuff. The actual writing wasn’t bad and kind of good at parts. Me not enjoying this book won’t turn me off from buying and reading Adam’s books in the future or impact my opinion of his other books. It was just a miss for me. Overall, it felt like a cool concept handled too cruelly and a joke gone too far. If you deal with existential depressive thoughts or have difficulty reading about death and loss, I 100% don’t recommend you read this book or if you do, proceed with caution. If you love Adam’s books and don’t think it’ll bother you, go ahead and read. I hope you love it more than I did. And if you like dark humor but also want a story with rib-aching laughs and tender hope, I highly suggest Lance Rubin’s YA novel Denton Little’s Deathdate.