Monday, November 5, 2018

Speechless by Adam P. Schmitt, 2018

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How do you give a eulogy when you can't think of one good thing to say? A poignant, funny, and candid look at grief, family secrets, difficult people, and learning to look behind the facade.

As if being stuffed into last year's dress pants at his cousin's wake weren't uncomfortable enough, thirteen-year-old Jimmy has just learned from his mother that he has to say a few words at the funeral the next day. Why him? What could he possibly say about his cousin, who ruined everything they did? He can't recall one birthday party, family gathering, or school event with Patrick that didn't result in injury or destruction. As Jimmy attempts to navigate the odd social norms of the wake, he draws on humor, heartfelt concern, and a good deal of angst while racking his brain and his memory for a decent and meaningful memory to share. But it's not until faced with a microphone that the realization finally hits him: it's not the words that are spoken that matter the most, but those that are truly heard.

(304 pages)

You'd think a book set at a young boy's wake would be way too morbid to be entertaining.

Somehow, Speechless isn't. It's sad, of course, but Schmitt straddles that line between sorrowful and funny very carefully. Little details, like Jimmy's aunt who is an "expert wake-goer" and Jimmy's ongoing struggles with the dress pants he's outgrown, add a morbid sort of humor to the present-day scenes.

The flashbacks to memories with Patrick start out as comedic interludes as well, but they grow increasingly sadder as the book progresses, painting a picture of Patrick's struggles with what was probably undiagnosed ADHD, or something similar. I got so mad at his parents, because they did such an awful job helping him.

The narrative jumps around a lot, as Jimmy flashes back to all these different memories of Patrick, but since the flashbacks go roughly in order it never becomes too confusing. I thought it was very well done, and by the end of the book I felt like I knew all the members of both Jimmy's and Patrick's families quite well. I got very mad at some of the parents at times (especially Patrick's father and Jimmy's mother!), but it was clear that they were all doing the best that they could and I appreciated that level of realism–no one was ever turned into a stereotype, for good or bad.

Speechless takes material that would normally be overwhelmingly depressing and manages to make it entertaining. It's still sad, of course–Patrick's death was a colossal tragedy. But the tragedy is handled near perfectly, and it's wonderful. Don't read this book if you're dealing with death in your own life, of course, but I think most other readers could definitely get something out of Speechless.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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