"You're dumb, Bosten."
I pushed him back.
I love my brother.
"Okay." And then he said, "I wish I wasn't like this."
You're the luckiest and best person in the world, Bosten."
"I can't live with dad anymore."
Some books bitchslap you with sentimentality, some punch you in the boobs with longing and heartbreak, some books feel like a good one-night stand that leaves you with the disgusting aftertaste of regret, self-loathing and the fear of herpes… okay, I think I'm getting sidetracked now… and some books hurt you in places you didn't know could hurt while lying in bed reading by yourself.
The blurb is pretty upfront, and true enough, this was not an easy read. I really thought I was going to DNF this at 15%. I've NEVER DNF-ed a book just for being too much. And I've read my share of too much. In truth, what Stick and Bosten went through, the abuse and the violence that went on inside and outside that house, usually puts me off. Because more often than not, I feel like I'm being emotionally manipulated into crying (I'm looking at you, Reason to Breathe). But placing this in the context of a deformed thirteen year old boy dealing with the complexity of puberty and the terrifying changes that comes with it, layered with the simplicity of his relationship with his brother… It worked.
The first half of Stick portrayed the lives of the McClellan brothers in Point No Point, Washington through the eyes of Stark "Stick" McClellan and his brother Bosten. Stick has one ear, one best friend (Emily) and a lot of abuse thrown his way. His brother, Bosten keep the wolves in school at bay but when they're home, there's no one between them, their parents and St. Fillan's Room. Their father may have beaten them into believing they are less than who they are, that this was the norm in every household, but they still got each other.
The second half deals with the aftermath of Bosten running away from home after their father found out that he's gay. Stick embarks on a lonesome roadtrip as he tracks his brother back to California, the place where they learned that kindness and love didn't come with rules and punishments through their Aunt Dahlia.
I may have to admit into liking the first half better than the last despite the persistent
twig branch I had in my eye while reading through it. I felt the narrative flowed, tension was evenly spaced and Stick's sexual awakening provided simultaneous charm and entertainment reminiscent of Ryan Dean in Winger. I always get a massive feels erection with stories reflecting relationships with brothers. Romantic and erotic relationships feel very pedestrian and easy but translating the depth and texture of that bond between brothers while displaying each as a person distinct from the other? It takes a very tempered hand to get that right, I feel.
Not to sell this one short on the romance because I found his and Emily's moments delightful in their innocence, warming the corners of my heart that have been frozen by their horrible parents. That particular exchange they have when Stick tells her what goes on in his house? Like getting shanked right in the aorta.
"Um. I love you, Emily. Do you know that?" I wasn't afraid or ashamed to say it. "So please don't cry, okay?"
"Of course I know you love me. Do you think I'm dumb?"
"No. I don't."
"Well, I love you, Stark McClellan."
Such innocence. Much love. Very happy. Wow.
The second half wasn't bad but with Bosten missing from the picture, I felt the story lost a bit of its balance. Some scenes felt too expository for me with some characters not serving any purpose in the bigger picture that was The Evolution of Stick to Stark McClellan (I don't get the point of April, for instance). There were good, intense moments that had me praying for certain things NOT to happen (my imagination can go to the dark and fucked up place in a certain setting) and one moment when I felt the tear-pushing just got too obvious Stick singing himself happy birthday while alone in the car? Oh come on, you're above that pay-grade Andrew Smith. Anywhere else I would've cried foul, but this time I'm just chalking it up as a slip.
The last 25% felt this side of rushed and for something as gritty as the first half of this book. The heavy handedness on pounding the recurring theme things happening and things changing started as an annoying paper cut that eventually grew to a mammoth bleeding gash on the face. There came a point it became impossible to ignore anymore.
These were small issues I had with the book, but what cost this book my esteem was the idea of Aunt Dahlia coming across too Poppins-esque, I think I was bothered by that, more than her turning up out of nowhere in their lives after having suffered so much. I like the imperfect and uneven edges in my books, the splinters make them more acceptable as realistic fiction. Aunt Dahlia just felt too smooth and California was just too much of a perfect yang to Washington's yin.
Stick is a tough book, yes, but I find myself drawn to these kinds of stories, pushing my boundaries and expanding my horizons as a reader. I'm going to step over my boundaries and aggressively push this to anyone who has read and liked or disliked Reason to Breathe.
They drive different messages across but they intersect at certain points. And in those points, this is the book that that one aspires to, but will never be.
"See? I told you."
"You are what you are, Stick. Nobody and nothing is going to make you change."
My brother knew the truth about everything.