Briarcliff native Jennifer Castle‘s first novel, The Beginning of After, for Young Adults, is reviewed by Larchmont writer Amalie Howard.
Sixteen-year-old Laurel Meisner’s life is about to turn on its head. After the death of her entire family in a car accident, Laurel tries to pretend it’s life as usual. She aces her SATs, gets asked to prom and tucks her grief deep down where it can’t touch her. On the surface, Laurel seems fine, but the cracks in her composure are deepening with every day, with every breath. Each time her grief threatens to surface, she shoves it away, “pain go away.” And it does, only to resurface twice as fast and twice as violently the next time.
Gorgeously written and insightful, The Beginning of After (Harper Teen) is a novel that will access your deepest emotions, even if you’ve never experienced loss. It will take you on a journey of healing that is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.
An intense and honest portrayal of teen life after trauma, this is a contemporary novel that won’t let you go once you’ve turned the first page. The Beginning of After was a 2012 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection.
What made you want to write this novel?
I had recently stepped away from screenwriting and was yearning to write something that reflected my experiences growing up as a teen in Westchester, where I had a fiery love/hate relationship with that small-town community vibe. Then 9/11 happened and everyone was grieving and talking about “Before” and “After”; around the same time, I met a young woman who had lost most of her family in an accident and was doing some cool things with her life. Everything clicked together into this story, and although I’d started and abandoned several novels before, I knew it was one I could take to the end.
In The Beginning of After, I couldn’t help comparing Laurel’s process of grief and that of David’s in terms of their responses to the same situation. Was that an intentional parallel, and if so, why?
In a sense, this was the heart of the book from the very start. I wanted to explore how people react to trauma differently, and I loved the idea that Laurel stays in place while David takes off. That created conflict between them but also a little magnetic tug drawing them together. It was an interesting template for portraying a relationship…even though the subject is serious, I have to admit I had a lot of fun with it.
I absolutely loved your use of David’s dog, Masher as the initial communicative medium between Laurel and David in the beginning, which worked beautifully from an emotional level, I thought. Can you talk more about that?
Ah, it makes me so happy when readers love Masher! At first, Laurel and David don’t know how to deal with each other, but they can each deal with the dog, because unlike people, he doesn’t judge or pity them. He gives them both such comfort, so it was a logical first connection between them. Animals are often the easiest way for us to reach outside of ourselves when we’re lost in something internal, and I wanted to play around with that as well. I loved writing Masher because I’ve never owned a dog of my own; now I feel like I do.
Is there a specific message in your novel that you’d like young readers to grasp?
I realize it may seem overdramatic to write about a girl who loses her entire family at once. But I see it as more of a metaphor for any game-changing event that forces us to see the world in terms of Before and After. That could be a breakup, or a relocation, or an illness or injury, or whatever. We live our lives with that feeling under our skin that things can change at any time. I’d like readers to see, through Laurel’s journey, that if and when that happens, they can survive it. They are strong enough. It might even bring them unexpected, positive opportunities or relationships.
Are you working on any other projects? What can readers look forward to from you in the future?
I’m currently finishing up my second novel, entitled “You Look Different In Real Life,” which will be published by HarperTeen in summer 2013. That book is about five teens who are the subjects of a documentary film series that peeks in on their lives every few years. It’s a very different story with a very different tone, but also explores what happens when young people find themselves connected by unusual circumstances. I guess that’s kind of my thing; the possibilities with that theme are rich and endless!