Samantha is the envy of most of her junior class. She's pretty and she's part of The Crazy Eights, the most popular group of girls in the school. From the outside, everything looks perfect, but what the rest of the class and even her best friends don't know is the silent struggles in Samantha's mind that are threatening to take her under. In Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone, Samantha has OCD, but unlike the compulsive hand washing that most people envision, Samantha's obsessions are mostly unseen; the dark thoughts she has are frightening and she can't turn them off. She fights everyday to stay in control and to make sure the friends she has had since pre-school never know, especially because even a new hair style they don't like can lead to severe criticism. When she asks them to start calling her Sam, they make it plain that is completely unacceptable. Her therapist has encouraged her to find new friends, but stepping outside of the Crazy Eights would be truly crazy. When she meets Caroline, however, she feels she may have found someone really special.
Caroline understands her and Sam isn't afraid to be herself. When Caroline offers to introduce her to something that may change her life, Sam is intrigued. Caroline takes her to Poet's Corner, a hidden room where a secret poetry club meets during lunch. Sam has never written poetry before, but once she begins, it pours out of her. The friends she meets there and the things she learns about herself really do change her life.
I genuinely loved this book. A girl in high school who is afraid not to fit in with the popular girls sounds like the worn out premise of thousands of mediocre YA books, but Stone does much, much more with this one. We are introduced to the terrifying nature of Sam's disorder from the very first chapter and it becomes clear to the reader that this book has something special. When Sam's mother tries to help talk her away from the thought that currently has her in it's grips, she offers this:
"How many thoughts does the brain automatically deliver in a single day?" Mom moves on to facts to help me center myself.
"Seventy thousand," I whisper as tears splash onto my jeans.
"That's right. Do you act on seventy thousand thoughts a day?"
I shake my head.
"Of course you don't. This thought was one in seventy thousand. It's not special."
"It's not special."
Then she reminds her:
"Whatever you're thinking, it's okay. It doesn't mean anything about you. Got it?"
This struggle is heartbreaking to watch, but it is wonderfully handled.
I enjoyed watching Sam as she discovers a new side of herself within Poet's Corner. It is an interesting thing to consider how we allow ourselves to be pigeon-holed in high school, either by our friends or simply by our limited experiences. If Sam had never pushed herself to try writing, she may never have discovered one of her greatest gifts. I also enjoyed watching as she realizes that the person she once was isn't who she wants to be any longer. The topic of toxic friendships is one I think most of us who have survived middle school and high school can understand. Unfortunately, these types of relationships can even develop in adulthood when we believe we have outgrown them. The actors may be different, but the themes remain the same and reading about a young woman moving on can be inspirational for readers for any age.
Finally, one of my favorite aspects of this book was all the poetry that the characters shared in Poet's Corner. I have never considered myself a fan of poetry, but the pieces in Every Last Word are wonderful. I would love to share some of it here with you, but the context is so important that I really just want you to read the book yourself and soak it all in as it comes.
One last note about this book: With mental illness such a significant part of this book, the author took great care in her Author's Note at the end to explain all the research she did to be sure to characterize this type of OCD correctly. She also makes it very clear that Sam's treatment is overseen by a qualified therapist and her parents and that any of Sam's improvements are due to her continued treatment. She also provides resources for readers that know someone who is or are themselves experiencing any mental health concerns and strongly encourages them to seek help. Mental illness is real and can be fatal. I will share the resources found in the book here. Please use them if this is something you need. I want all of my SmartGirls to be cared for and as healthy as possible.