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Book Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian (3/5)

17 Sep

If you haven’t read one of my Chris Bohjalian book reviews before, get ready. I’m a big fan of his. He pulls on my heartstrings in ways I didn’t think were possible and I like to tweet him. So when I heard he was coming out with a YA book, I was intrigued. Unfortunately, I think I’ll stick to his adult fiction from now on.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

Summary from Goodreads:

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless teen living in an igloo made of ice and trash bags filled with frozen leaves. Half a year earlier, a nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had experienced a cataclysmic meltdown, and both of Emily’s parents were killed. Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault. Was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to flee their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that, as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger. So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer’s apartment, and inventing a new identity for herself – an identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. When Emily befriends a young homeless boy named Cameron, she protects him with a ferocity she didn’t know she had. But she still can’t outrun her past, can’t escape her grief, can’t hide forever – and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.

1,000,000 points for originality. It was interesting to hear Bohjalian’s take on what would happen with a complete nuclear meltdown in the modern US. It’s something I’d never considered before. I liked that he used someone who was affected by the disaster in an unusual way. Most people lost their houses while Emily lost her entire family. What bothered me was that Emily’s story was very mature. She went through a lot of things a 16-year-old shouldn’t have to think about. And she justified a lot of things no human should ever undergo or see. I felt a lot of this was left open to the reader to interpret and I didn’t feel this was 100% appropriate for a YA book. At the end of the book, you see Emily keeping her razor close by for comfort, implying that cutting is comforting and not something a strong character could overcome. After seeing her come through so much, I would have liked to see her defeat her vices.

Growing up, I knew people who had some of Emily’s issues, but never all of them at once. I knew people who cut, people who took prescription drugs, people who slept around, and people who ran away from home. But wrapping them up into one person was intense. I’m not sure she would have survived it all. I was confused by her protective nature with Cameron. She obviously had a motherly instinct to help him, but it hadn’t kicked in before and she wasn’t taking good care of herself at the same time. Granted, it was better, but she still had her razor and given the chance, might have used. Maybe not, I could be wrong. Anyway, I usually associate an urge like that with a woman who’s lost a child, not a sixteen-year-old. That confused me a bit.

Truthfully, I didn’t ‘like’ any of the characters. None of them was someone I’d want to be friends with or would acknowledge on the street. Maybe Cameron because I felt bad for him, but he was a bit flat as a character to me. We didn’t get too much of his personality in the book. There were a lot of small side characters that showed up for a page or two that ended up disappearing that I liked, but no one who stuck around.

When I studied abroad, there were things about home that I missed. Small things, like my pillow and food from certain restaurants, but big things, too, like my parents and friends. Emily misses these things, too, but she can never go back to them. And when she finally tries to, nothing is the same. The people are gone, the buildings are empty. I would have momentary fears while I was in the UK that everything would be gone when I got back, but Emily lived that nightmare.

Me and Chris Bohjalian

Me and Chris Bohjalian

I was relieved when Emily started getting her act together at the end. Seeing her try to hold a job and buying groceries was reassuring that everything was going to be okay. I was so hopefully when she started asking other people for help. I guess if things hadn’t gone south, she might have made it. I like to think so, anyway.

The non-linear plotline bothered me the most. I was confused as to the order of things and when Emily was with certain people and if X had happened already or if that was after the part I was listening to and where Y fit into this line. Emily kept it somewhat straight by dividing time into BC (Before Cameron) and AC (After Cameron) but I still found things confusing within these parts.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Grace Blewer, Bohjalian’s daughter. I liked this a lot because I think Bohjalian was thinking of Grace a lot while he was writing. She’s the 16-year-old he’s known most intimately and during the interview at the end of the recording, he admits he asked Grace for help with vocabulary from time to time, so it was literally her words she was reading. Blewer is a trained actress and did a good job narrating Emily.

I thought the message in this book was a little too obscure. I think Emily was so far gone that she thought there was no forgiveness yet found out she was wrong. That was the one message I got that I liked; we can have a second chance if we ask for it. She gave up on herself too quickly and gave up again when Cameron got sick.

Writer’s Takeaway: My biggest issue with this book was the maturity of the content and the age of the protagonist. It felt weird to be reading about what Emily went through and know it was a 16-year-old and not someone in their mid-twenties. Not that being in your mid-twenties makes any of that more acceptable, but it would make it feel a little less ‘weird’ to read. I think it’s a matter of matching the book with the right audience. It didn’t feel like a YA book to me, but it was directed to a YA audience.


A great concept that didn’t work for me for some unknown reason. Three out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian | Pathologically Literate
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian | No Charge Bookbunch