“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts. See, on some people’s hearts he writes happy and on some people’s hearts he writes sad and on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser… And it’s all pretty much random. He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts. And when it came to my turn, he wrote sad.” (pg. 11)
Zach is 18 years old, and instead of spending his senior year in Mr. Garcia’s English class or hanging out with his friends, he’s spending it with Adam, his therapist in rehab. Zach can’t, or won’t, remember the events that brought him to the clinic. In fact, much of his time is spent trying not to remember anything at all. But the memories of his life before – of his loving but alcoholic father, of his distant and sometimes abusive mother, of his troubled older brother Santiago who holds the whole family hostage to his terrible anger – keep creeping in.
The first few chapters of Zach’s narration are told in language that is fragmented, dense, and repetitive. Brief memories float up to the surface, like the little pieces of paper Zach imagines covering the world with words. While the language brings the reader deeply and authentically inside the mind of a troubled young man, it is also really difficult to read. I almost gave up. I’m so glad I didn’t. Because as Zach peels away the barriers that he has put up – whether it is the barriers created by the haze of bourbon and cocaine that was his life before rehab, or the mental barriers that he uses as protection from his own past – this novel grows from a profoundly sad portrait of young man and blooms into something much more.
Zach certainly can’t be considered lucky in his life, but he does have the good fortune to meet a few people who truly see him as he is. His English teacher, Mr. Garcia, sees through to the bright, creative young man who hides behind silence and sadness, and he reaches out to him. Adam, the therapist at Zach’s rehab clinic, also sees past Zach’s many barriers and tries to help him break past them. But there is one person who actually reaches past those barriers and touches Zach.
Zach’s roommate in rehab has the name of an artist or an angel, and to Zach he is both of those things. As Zach learns Rafael’s heartbreaking story, and watches this man who should be broken fighting to conquer his monsters and live his life, Zach begins to search for the strength in himself to face his own past, and maybe his future. Their relationship becomes the emotional heart of the story, even more than the traumatic event that Zach has buried deep in his mind. While the reader has seen the depth of Zach’s internal life, he has not been able to share any of his struggles with others. Rafael is the first person who convinces Zach to share what is buried inside of himself – both the good and the bad. It is a relationship that is truly transformational, and it is written with deep emotion and grace.
This is a devastating, crying-on-the-subway kind of book, but it ends on a note of hope – and not one that felt forced or false. Despite his many trials and tribulations, Zach is a beautiful young man, and Sáenz tells his story in a way that will stay with the reader.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz on the web