Alice Kuipers’ first novel, Life on the Refrigerator Door, caused a bit of a sensation when it was published in 2007, winning several awards and being published in 28 countries. Consisting entirely of notes (ranging from grocery lists to heartfelt admissions of physical and emotional frailty) between a 15-year-old girl and her ridiculously busy OB/GYN mom, the book – marketed as an adult/YA crossover – was an unconventional view into the relationship between mothers and daughters.
With her YA-focused sophomore effort, U.K.-born, Saskatoon-dwelling Kuipers (who is married to this month’s cover story subject, Yann Martel) again touches on mother-daughter relationships, but loses the novelty factor of the note format. Instead, The Worst Thing She Ever Did employs the old standby device of a character’s diary.
The diary belongs to 16-year-old Sophie Baxter, a teenager in London, England, who is dealing with (or refusing to deal with) the death of her older sister, Emily. Sophie won’t talk about Emily’s death or the circumstances surrounding it, and is encouraged by her therapist to write things down to let out some of the bottled up emotions. She does, gradually revealing not only what happened, but how the event continues to affect her and those in her inner circle.
Kuipers nails the voice of a mature teen who has been forced to grow up fast but is still fundamentally inexperienced and open to the exuberance of youth. Balancing the more difficult and mournful entries are plenty of lighter ones (complete with rampant use of FULL CAPS and exclamation points!!!!) that prevent the book from becoming too doom-laden and show that even while one grieves, life goes on.
Many of the most emphatically angst-ridden passages address Sophie’s dealings with her mother. This is familiar territory for Kuipers, and her handling of the intricacies of this relationship is even more adroit this time around. Despite Sophie’s inability to get over Emily’s death, she resents the fact that her mother is also unable to do so, leaving her without her greatest source of emotional support. Kuipers deftly crafts the exchanges between Sophie and her mom (complete with eye-rolls from the younger Baxter and heaving sighs from the elder), and the descriptions, while given from Sophie’s point of view, leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that Mom is trying to reach out, without much success.
Other supporting characters are not as successful, however. Rosa-Leigh, a token Canadian (from Canmore, eh?), is introduced in the first few pages and features prominently throughout. While she acts as a positive influence on Sophie, introducing her to the world of poetry and spoken word performances, their friendship comes across as oddly hollow. Though Rosa-Leigh helps guide Sophie through some of her darkest moments, Sophie expresses very little attachment to her classmate. Some of this could be attributed to Sophie’s reluctance to reach out to her friends, which alienates her best friend Abi to the extent that they no longer know how to be around each other. But it’s also representative of Kuipers’ failure to imbue the relationship with enough real emotion to make it believable.
Despite dropping several clues along the way, Kuipers waits until the last quarter of the book to reveal how Emily died. By the time she does so (spoiler alert: she died in a terrorist bombing), the reader is caught up in the suspense. However, Kuipers glosses over the bigger issues of terrorism, extremism, and racism. Sophie never seems overly angry or questioning of why the bombing took place, beyond a few general moments of “why did this have to happen?” When she does confront the issues, she is remarkably blasé: “I was thinking about terrorists and bombings and wars, and I wondered how someone would become a terrorist. An ordinary guy, going about his ordinary life, who is promised he’ll get to sleep with however many white-clad virgins and live forever in some fluffy cloud if he just does this one thing. One murderous act. It makes as much sense to me as firing bullets into a crowd of strangers.” Given the level of emotional and psychological turmoil the character is experiencing, it’s odd that Kuipers would downplay what would surely be part of Sophie’s reaction to such a situation. The result is an unsatisfying gap in character development.
Kuipers’ talent lies in creating believable teenaged characters. Her dialogue is sharp and true to life and she understands teens’ thoughts and heightened emotions. What makes The Worst Thing She Ever Did especially good is that it doesn’t talk down to teen readers. Kuipers addresses a handful of tough issues, from terrorism and panic attacks to eating disorders and alcoholism, but does so with a light enough touch that the story never becomes overwhelmingly bleak. Kuipers’ handling of such important issues may be occasionally superficial, but for its intended audience, she has likely provided just enough detail to spur independent thought and curiosity.