Saturday, December 29, 2018

Book Review: A Heart in a Body in the World

Book Review: A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti

Goodreads Description: When everything has been taken from you, what else is there to do but run?

So that’s what Annabelle does—she runs from Seattle to Washington, DC, through mountain passes and suburban landscapes, from long lonely roads to college towns. She’s not ready to think about the why yet, just the how—muscles burning, heart pumping, feet pounding the earth. But no matter how hard she tries, she can’t outrun the tragedy from the past year, or the person—The Taker—that haunts her.

Followed by Grandpa Ed in his RV and backed by her brother and two friends (her self-appointed publicity team), Annabelle becomes a reluctant activist as people connect her journey to the trauma from her past. Her cross-country run gains media attention and she is cheered on as she crosses state borders, and is even thrown a block party and given gifts. The support would be nice, if Annabelle could escape the guilt and the shame from what happened back home. They say it isn’t her fault, but she can’t feel the truth of that.

Through welcome and unwelcome distractions, she just keeps running, to the destination that awaits her. There, she’ll finally face what lies behind her—the miles and love and loss…and what is to come.

My Review: I was given a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. 

It's been almost a year since the crime that shook Annabelle Agnelli's life to the very core, yet she can't move on. The guilt and shame haunts her and time seems to be making things worse, not better, as it marches her towards the one year anniversary and a mysterious meeting in September. So one night in a fast food parking lot she snaps, and just starts running -- away from the past, away from the future, away from the things she did and didn't do. Joined by her grandfather in his RV, the two set out on a months-long marathon across the country, cheered on by her brother and friends, the unofficial campaign managers. But even with all the support in the world, Annabelle struggles to forgive herself for the part she played in the crime. If she hopes to make it to DC, or to the meeting in September, or to ever move on with her life, she has to push through and make sense of it all -- the run, the crime, the survivor's guilt, and the phantom image of The Taker that haunts her every day. 

“This is the problem with danger, isn't it? You can even be warned and ignore the warning. Danger can seem far away until the sky grows dark, and a bolt of fury heads straight toward you.” - A Heart in a Body in the World

Wow, this book is devastating. I am going to do my best to avoid anything relatively spoilery because the book relies heavily on the mystery of what happened to Annabelle as well as what will happen (with the upcoming September meeting) to drive the tension and keep readers engaged. I'm usually a little annoyed when books withhold information from the reader in an attempt to build tension, but it actually works fairly well in this book, mostly because the book isn't really about the crime itself, but all the emotions that came afterwards -- the survivor's guilt, the anxiety, PTSD symptoms, depression, and how to work through those emotions and continue going despite it all. So withholding the actual details of the crime wasn't frustrating, and definitely enough of a draw to keep me reading longer. 

Annabelle is also a reluctant protagonist in this story. She's not running with a big cause in mind, she didn't spend any time preparing or doing any marketing for fundraising -- she just runs because she's at the end of her rope and it's the only thing left she can do. She gets pushed into a position of activist by her brother and friends who use that angle in order to raise money for her travels, but she spends most of the book trying to wrap her head around her own feelings, let alone format a message to send out. The raw emotions in this book are what make it so powerful and this book just nails them every single time: Annabelle feeling responsible for other people's feelings, that anxious need to be the perfect everything to everyone, crushing down gut instincts because of guilt, let alone any of the mental health issues that come out after the crime. The way emotions and mental health were handled in this book was incredibly accurate and powerful and made me want to give a copy to every little girl. I loved how it addressed gut feelings girls may have about men, how they may ignore them because we're taught not to jump to conclusions, and how to trust in yourself. The book took a feminist approach to domestic violence and was organized into a powerful story that shows girls how -- and why-- it matters to trust in yourself. 

Though I'm not interested in running (I'm committed to the couch), it wasn't hard to get into the book or understand Annabelle's need to run. Much of the book involves just Annabelle and the road, but the focus is on her trauma and how she learns to reconcile all the pain and loss, and the running definitely takes a back seat to that. Annabelle at times uses the running to hurt herself as a way to atone, and so even when we see the injuries from her run or how she prepares herself, the focus is still on the struggle in her head. I was really interested in how the book handled "The Taker," who is a relatively nameless character who committed the crime and now haunts Annabelle wherever she goes. At first I wasn't sure how I liked the way The Taker was shown, as he is shown to be more of a faceless, nameless monster than a real person who committed a crime. Annabelle demonizes him in her head (rightfully so) to the point that the character is more of a monster than a human. Though this is very accurate to how many trauma victims react to their abuser, I wondered if it took away from the story by furthering that cognitive dissonance in many of us that violent criminals are somehow not human, or at least different from us, as opposed to just another person. The Taker is named at the end of the book, which I feel is super important for giving him a human face. Since the book was about Annabelle's emotions, not the crime or The Taker, I realized it was probably more effective to have him as a faceless monster, as that is more true to how a trauma victim would react. 

The writing style was really interesting in this book. It's third person, present tense, with a style that's similar to 3rd person limited perspective as we stay in Annabelle's head throughout, but the author doesn't take us fully inside Annabelle's thoughts and feelings as specifics of the crime are being withheld to create tension, so the point of view is somewhere between limited and a close omniscient. The way the story is written has a huge effect on the reader, as we get incredibly close to Annabelle yet there is still this distance between us and her that gives us the mystery - this is particularly evident after Annabelle witnesses a deer being hit by a car and we see the effect it has on her, without really knowing the exact thoughts circling in her head. 

The only thing that held me back from 5 starring this book was the unlikely cheesiness that came out at times. Annabelle gets a lot of support throughout the book, which is hugely important for someone dealing with PTSD, but the unanimous support was just a little too much, especially at the climax, pushing it from feeling unlikely to a little fake. That cheesiness also took me out of the story a bit, which was a shame since the rest of the book was so spot on. It's hard to judge a book for being "too positive" but it just seems too perfect to be true, which might say more about my life and experiences than the realism of the scene, but I don't think I'm the only reader who felt a little iffy on the happily ever after moments. 

TL;DR: 4/5 stars. An emotional journey about a girl learning to find her voice and her strength after a violent tragedy. 

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