When I was five or six years old, my older brother convinced me to go on the Haunted House ride with him at the local show. I was pretty scared, and knew my big brother wouldn’t protect me from anything, and didn’t particularly want to go, but I thought if I didn’t do it now I’d never do it, and I wanted the experience of having been through the Haunted House at least once in my life.
I went through with my hands over my eyes, listening to the screams and squeals of other kids as a staff member wearing a clown mask jumped on carts and grabbed them by the shoulder, as skeletons jumped out of nowhere, and spooky voices laughed maniacally for no reason.
It was the most boring Haunted House experience I could have picked.
That was what it was like reading this book.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the story of the not Chosen Ones, the regular kids living their everyday, humdrum lives, while the superstar heroes – the Bella Swans, the Lucinda Prices, the Augustus Waters, the Nora Greys – go off and save the day. Once upon a time the indie kids might have been called hipsters, and they all have hipster-like names – Satchel, Dylan, and overwhelming number of Finns etc.
But in writing a book about the boring everyday life of regular kids, we get a boring everyday life of regular kids book.
Most of the action happens in the chapter summaries that pretty much have nothing to do with the regular characters. Regular characters live their lives safely knowing that only indie kids will be affected, only indie kids will have to fight the third apocalypse, vampires, zombies, or die beautifully of cancer.
So regular kids go on living their lives and pretty much nothing happens.
The concept of the novel is great. One of my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is in Season 3, Episode 13 'The Zeppo', where perpetually mortal Xander has his own adventures when the superhero group try to keep him safe by exclusion as they battle an apocalypse.
But this same basic premise fails in the novel on three counts.
- We neither know nor care about any of the indie kids
- The regular kids don’t have adventures of their own, they 'just live' their life.
- It’s super hard to care about the indie kid adventures when it doesn’t really affect the normal kids.
See, in The Zeppo, Xander does end up saving the day, even though he’s not the Chosen One. The same thing doesn’t happen in this novel. In the novel, the regular kids are always saying, “We just need to survive until graduation and hope they don’t blow the gym up.” But there’s nothing threatening them. The only people threatened are the indie kids. The only ones to pay the price and face any hurdles are the indie kids. The ones facing the climax of the novel are the indie kids.
Jared even goes so far as to say, "They think their actions don't affect anyone but them."
Unfortunately, he's exactly right. And I'm not sure if that is meant to be ironic or not.
In a piece of writing advice I once saw, the author recommended using this basic premise on the main character:
Act One: Get Character Up a Tree. Act Two: Throw Rocks. Act Three: Get Character Down.
The problem with The Rest of Us Just Live Here is that none of the regular kids have gone up that tree. The indie kids go up the tree. The regular kids are out of shot being boring and uninteresting.
In The Rest of Us Just Live Here, our main characters ‘just live’.
That’s not to say that the characters themselves are boring. They may be ‘just living’, but Ness has filled this novel with diverse and interesting characters, all with quirks of their own. There’s our main character Mikey who has OCD and anxiety (and a fascinating discussion with the doctor on his feelings of anxiety), his sister who’s a recovering anorexic, the gay best friend he’s casually mucked around with, and the bi-racial love interest. The core main cast are well rounded and three-dimensional. They are such a great, tight-knit little friendship grop, a whole team of love and support for each other. They would fit in so well in any YA contemporary novel and be twice as interesting as the woe-is-me main character who just lost her parents in a car crash and needs to learn to trust again. It’s just such a pity there’s nothing for them to do except ‘just live’. Navigate the politics of teenage-turned-adulthood. Wait for graduation. Figure out if it’s love – or not.
Look, I love the concept of following the background characters in Chosen One novels. Imagine life as one of the unnamed witches or wizards in Harry Potter, one of the unnamed schoolkids in Twilight, one of the unreaped in The Hunger Games. Seeing the heroes fight from afar, save the world.
But apart from observing, those kids wouldn’t do anything interesting either. The idea fails because of its very nature.
Excluding the chapter summaries, The Rest of Us Just Live Here reads like a contemporary YA with a hint of magical realism – and even that could be very easily erased. In erasing the magical realism, what you get is a very regular paint by numbers coming of age about a kid with OCD who’s afraid of growing up and growing apart from his friends.
I don’t understand why Ness simply couldn’t have written about that.
I received this book for free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.