AS IF!!! I mean really, as if!
Allow me to explain.
I was nearly finished reading Susan Vaught’s Freaks Like Us when something absolutely horrible happened (horrible as in the author screwed up the ending and I don’t mean ‘oh no – why did she have to die?’). As I read I thought, ‘can’t wait to write about this book in my blog, it’s great, how intense, I love it’. And then the worst happens. True, the book isn’t finished as the epilogue remains. But I had to stop and write down my thoughts before reading the last chapter. Maybe Susan Vaught will redeem herself. One can only hope.
I enjoy reading books where the story is narrated by a child or a person with impairments; it allows me to view the world from their point of view. The narrator shares their perspective on what is around them, what happens to them, and how they feel about what is happening around them. I learn much more and gain a greater understanding and appreciation of life. It’s often an eye-opening experience for me. We so often take the world around us for granted. An example of this is Room by Emma Donoghue, which is narrated by a 5-year-old boy — and Thank God It Was! That book was difficult enough to read due to its content, but all that the mother and son suffered was easier to stomach when viewed through the eyes and heart of the 5-year-old. His point of view was innocent; his commentary was childish. He gave life to everything around him, giving items names and purpose. He was the buffer, the white-washing I needed to endure. Another example is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which is narrated by a 15-year-old with Asperger syndrome, a disorder related to autism, who has great difficulty interacting with people, among other issues. He decides to take on a huge task of finding out who killed the neighbour’s dog. He does this all on his own, talking to people asking questions (a very difficult effort for him), travelling far from home, and distancing himself from safe zones and safe people. It’s a streneous journey for him and he overcomes his fears to find the truth.
I digress. Freaks Like Us is about three 17-year-old high schoolers. Jason, a.k.a. Freak, is the voice of the book and we see and experience everything through him. His best friends are Derrick, a.k.a. Drip, because he is tall, lanky and his nose is always running, and Sunshine, no a.k.a. At school, they are in a special program called Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED for short), among a number of students with a variety of problems. Jason is diagnosed as schizophrenic as he hears voices and is labelled SCZI. Derrick has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD. And Sunshine is Selectively Mute, SM, and fears speaking with people, although she easily speaks to Jason and Derrick when they are alone. They call themselves alphabets – helping them accept and live with who they are.
One day, Sunshine goes missing and thus, the remainder of the book focuses on the efforts made to find her – all through Jason’s eyes. His mother, a Colonel in the military, involves the FBI; that’s when we meet Agent Mercer representing the chief FBI agent on the case. He’s your typical as-seen-on-TV FBI agent — hard-nosed, serious, hasn’t cracked a smile in years. The book has the typical usual suspects for this type of mystery: two bullies (there’s always a bully), a creepy teacher, a protective but juvenile delinquent brother, step-parents, separated parents…
Jason fears that Agent Mercer is targeting him, believing him to be the culprit. Add to that the proven belief that no one listens to alphabets, he and Derrick — desperate to find Sunshine and to be true to her by keeping her secrets — go off on their own to find her. Their difficulties are compounded with having to deal with their disorders, working hard to control the symptoms in this stressful time. Jason avoids taking his meds as they make him sluggish, therefore the voices in his head become fiercer, endlessly yelling at him, calling him Freak, making him paranoid, and saying he should kill himself. I continually asked myself, how does he do it? How does he cope? How is he able to communicate? And most importantly, when is he ever at peace? Sunshine knows how to bring him peace; she helps him to focus and focusing on her quiets the voices. Derrick himself at one point hasn’t taken his meds and is bouncing all over the place, barely coherent. Once medicated, he’s good to go. Their desperation is palpable throughout.
Over time, Jason and Agent Mercer’s relationship changes. Although the changes are slight, Mercer begins to understand Jason, and when Jason is at his lowest — suffering from a brutal beating, lack of sleep, and no meds — he gives in and confides in Mercer, telling him everything he knows. That’s when you know that Mercer finally hears him and believes in him.
As a reader, I was invested from the get-go. Like Jason and Derrick, I was concerned that time was flying, and they were no closer to Sunshine’s whereabouts. I felt the intensity, hated the right people, doubted the others, thought ‘don’t forget the step-dad’ and so on. I was right in there with the boys. And was just as frustrated when after a week with no success, Agent Mercer declared that the FBI unit was packing up and re-assigning the case to the local police. With the evidence found (i.e. the locket), they surmised that Sunshine left on her own accord and due to budget cuts, one week was all his department could provide to the investigation.
Is this plausible? Is it true? No idea. Believe me, this was not what lead to my disappointment with the book.
As Agent Mercer departs, he has a private chat with Jason, relaying his reasons for leaving and what his thoughts are on the case. He pre-empts these comments with ‘I could lose my job if I shared comments like…’ In other words, he relays to Jason verbal case clues AND he carelessly (right) leaves a briefcase behind containing physical evidence. YES, you read it correctly. Agent Mercer, stalwart FBI agent, hands over case evidence to a schizophrenic teenager. On top of this incredible faux-pas, the evidence clearly points to one suspect as having been the cause for Sunshine’s departure. If, the FBI has this one suspect, then why not bring that person in for questioning? Test for DNA? No, they choose to walk away and leave the onus on the local officials and a 17-year-old to finish up. That’s where I come in and say AS IF!
Before I begin adding my own alphabets to this post such as WTF, OMG, FFS, and STFU, I’m off to read the Epilogue. See you soon.
Done. The book provides a happy ending. The girl is safe and getting better, the boy will go to college, the brother may join the army to straighten himself out, the bullies get their just deserts just as the creepy teacher does, the bad guy will be arrested, ‘take care of Drip’… All loose ends tied, everyone accounted for, no more tears.
Was the book a good read? Certainly. Was the ending badly written? You bet. We all love a happy ending but this one was not satisfactory. When reading the book and enjoying its pace and intensity, running into that poorly written moment was akin to enjoying a Sunday drive, loving the scenery, and company and driving directly into a car-sized pothole.
Freaks Like Us is a book aimed at Young Adults. Could this be why the author tied up all the loose ends so neatly? Made all the bad guys go away? And why she so blatently placed the onus on the teen to solve the mystery? I hope not. I’d like to give teens more credit and believe they are smarter than this.
However, I did like something Susan Vaught said in the acknowledgement: We’re all Freaks at heart, and there’s nothing wrong with that, no matter what anyone tried to tell you.