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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Neverworld Wake: Testing The Boundaries of Friendship...and the World

Marisha Pessl's first foray into YA fiction yields an entertaining, inventive, fast-paced story about the limits of friendship, secrets, and how those friendships influence your world. Similar to her much ballyhooed debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the plot for Neverworld Wake is about a group of private-school kids trying to parse a mysterious death. But there's quite a wrinkle this time.

Our narrator Beatrice's magnetic boyfriend Jim died a year ago under mysterious circumstances, and Beatrice is still devastated. Jim's death was ruled a suicide but no one really believed that. After a year away at college, Beatrice returns to her small Rhode Island hometown, and goes to meet her four former friends who she hasn't seen or talked to since Jim died. They go out drinking and seem to all get along again, ostensibly beginning to repair these friendships that Beatrice realizes she'd desperately missed.

But then, near tragedy! They narrowly miss getting in a spectacular car accident on the way home. Or do they? That night, a weird old guy named The Keeper shows up at the door, and tells them they're sort of maybe dead? Are they? What's happening? It turns out to be true! They find themselves trapped in a timeless limbo between life and death, re-living the same 11 hours over and over again. This so-called Neverworld Wake, they're informed, is an amalgamation of how each sees the world; each of them brings a unique influence to this new reality.

And so, imagine how much the limits of your friendships would be tested if you have to live the same day over and over again, with the same five people. They all deal in different ways, as Pessl slowly unveils to us the "rules" of this new world — the main one being that each night before the wake starts over, they're supposed to vote on which one of them (and it can only be one and the vote must be unanimous) will return to life in the real world. The rest will die.

Eventually, after 10 (or 10 million?) wakes, they come to the realization that continuing to investigate Jim's death must be the key to solving the Neverworld Wake (though it's never really clear why this is so — one my main quibbles with this novel I mostly enjoyed. There's more than a few plot holes and a bit of deus ex machine to boot. But I'm not trying to be a jerk about it).

But as they come closer to solving the mysteries of the wake — including how they've all personally influenced how the wake acts and its "rules" — they also come closer to solving Jim's death. Each carries with him or her a secret that is related.

So one of the main lessons of the story is that just like each of these characters' personalities and talents, their flaws and foibles, literally influences the Neverwold Wake, so also do these things influence how a friendship looks and reacts and survives in the real world. My favorite quote from the novel, that brings this point home really profoundly:
“We are all anthologies. We are each thousands of pages long, filled with fairy tales and poetry, mysteries and tragedy, forgotten stories in the back no one will ever read.” 
As with her first two novels, Pessl displays her supreme talent here — she's really just a magnificent craftswoman as a writer. I don't read much YA — and frankly, have no idea what makes a novel a YA novel; why was this YA, but Special Topics In Calamity Physics was not? — but I enjoyed this. It's a quick, engrossing read and despite its flaws, is really smart, as well.

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