Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: February 11, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
It is summertime in a beach town meaning there’s only one place to be if you’re a teenager. Unfortunately, Max is there but it’s behind the counter of the Snack Shack where his father has insisted he works so that he, an affluent politician, can say, “My son works” and make himself sound like the common man. Barkley is Max’s boss, a twenty-on-year old whose lack of any hygiene at all and propensity to wear sunglasses indoors makes him less than fun to be around. Claire is not there because several months ago her mother had a stroke and Claire’s summer has been spent babysitting her six-year-old sister, Izzy, and visiting her mother in the hospital.
I’m not a YA maven but have seen enough of it to find that the most common themes involve high school girls with unlimited budgets, driving BMWs and wearing Louboutins, fighting over boys. Instead of these vacuous creatures, in Before My Eyes by Caroline Bock, we have Barkley, a young man who is clearly mentally unstable and dangerous but whose parents are ineffectual at best and negligent at worst. In Barkley’s unbalanced mind:
I know it is a sign. I must be here. The future is here. Violence is both a noun and a philosophical construct. I embody the noun—and the construct—and if I am violence, and I am good (which I must be), then violence must be good or in the purpose of the greater good since my only purpose is to do good.
As the only female protagonist in the book, Claire is leading a life far removed from the one she had before the school year ended. Her mother’s stroke has left her as the adult and caregiver in their house. She is deeply conflicted about her situation, largely because she heard her mother fall but thought nothing of it and so did not find her until several minutes had passed. She carries this guilt mixed with an acidic brew of resentment that her strong capable mother who took care of everything in their house can hardly speak and move. She wants nothing more than to be at the beach:
I don’t have to be scared of the beach when the things to fear, to be really scared of, aren’t outside, aren’t here in the water, or atop a mountain even, but in ourselves: a tremor, a headache, a morning when smells or sounds are unfamiliar in the most ordinary and familiar of places.
Max is the stereotypical golden boy from books and movies except that his family is so concerned with appearances they have nothing beneath the surface. His father is running for re-election so Max has to be perfect. Not any easy feat for a normal 17-year-old and one that gets even harder after Max hurts his back playing soccer and finds his father’s pain pills to be the only thing that helps.
The beach, Labor Day weekend, hormones, resentment, cool kids, and a young man with extreme ideas about how to be heard combine to make a perfect storm. Before My Eyes works for a young adult audience because Bock doesn’t treat them like children. Instead, she inhabits her characters in a way that gives their feelings validity, even in the case of the irrational. The yearning, the fear, wanting to fit in, wanting to be someone/somewhere else are all evoked in the same way the sun and sand of summer are. To a young adult, Claire and Max and their situations will resonate and for those of us for whom the teen years are long gone, the writing still evokes long-lost feelings.