Review: The Catastrophic History of You and Me – Jess Rothenberg

the catastrophic history of you and me - jess rothenberg


Brie’s life ends at sixteen: Her boyfriend tells her he doesn’t love her, and the news breaks her heart — literally.

But now that she’s D&G (dead and gone), Brie is about to discover that love is way more complicated than she ever imagined. Back in Half Moon Bay, her family has begun to unravel. Her best friend has been keeping a secret about Jacob, the boy Brie loved and lost — and the truth behind his shattering betrayal. And then there’s Patrick, Brie’s mysterious new guide and resident Lost Soul… who just might hold the key to her forever after.

With Patrick’s help, Brie will have to pass through the five stages of grief before she’s ready to move on. But how do you begin again, when your heart is still in pieces?



A few months ago, when I first heard about The Catastrophic History of You and Me, I knew from the title alone that I was going to like this book. It sounded emotional. It sounded interesting. It sounded like the kind of story that would take me on a whirlwind of tragedy and adventure, and end up affecting me in ways I can’t even fathom. It’s a lot to throw on a book when all you know about it is its intriguing title. And still, somehow, The Catastrophic History of You and Me managed to take all of my expectations and match them. Even more than I expected it to.

Truthfully, I am not very fond of books in which characters examine, re-evaluate, or fix their lives after death (The Lovely Bones is one of the only books where I’ve seen this concept written well), so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the way Jess Rothenberg executed this premise. I can’t imagine a character in Brie Eagen’s situation moving on easily, and I truly loved the way Jess Rothenberg created Brie’s Slice of Heaven, allowing her to relive moments of her life, think about how she died (and come to terms with it), and go through all of the stages of grief sequentially — denial, anger (and the need for revenge) towards the person who did this to her, bargaining for her life back, sadness for herself, and finally, acceptance and closure. I also really appreciated the richness of Rothenberg’s heaven. The after-life strongly resembled the world Brie knew while she was alive, and though there were rules, no one (aside from Patrick) was telling Brie what to do, where to go, and how to ascend beyond the spot in which she appeared post-mortem. I liked the idea of falling back into the world (off of the Golden Gate Bridge) from her new, after-death world, and the fact that, no matter how hard Brie tried, she could not find her way “home” in the after-life. Both details helped separate the world of the living from the world of the dead, serving as another reminder of how the place she is in now may look the same, but actually isn’t.

Largely, I think the reason why I enjoyed The Catastrophic History of You and Me so much is its format. Brie’s story is told in a perfect medley of flashbacks and “real time”, seamlessly moving back and forth between the past and the present and Brie’s current reflections. I was a little wary when I realized that Brie was visiting the past out of order, remembering things as they came but not necessarily in the order in which they happened. In my experience, few books can pull off a story that takes place in two different times. To not only do this, but also place the novel’s events out of order seems daring and incredibly risky. And yet, surprisingly, Jess Rothenberg makes this organization work, and work well. Reading about Brie’s memories in the order in which she remembered them, in the order in which they meant something to her after she had died, felt authentic. It made Brie seem realistic (well, even more realistic than she already seemed). I can’t imagine dying and remembering everything that ever happened to me in the exact sequence in which it happened. Some things matter more to you than others, to the point where they’ll probably stay with you even after you’ve died. Also, given that Brie was only sixteen, her thoughts and emotions would be all over the place, jumping from where her life ended, to random places in between. Having her think about things this way only seemed natural. Moreover, her sporadic thoughts came to her in a way that allowed her to re-evaluate her life and death gradually, helping her make choices in the after-life to make sense of her actual life, and eventually, to move on. Using her thoughts as a jumping point for her feelings and her eventual closure was brilliant, and a large part of why they worked so well is the meticulous way Jess Rothenberg ordered Brie’s life — out of order.

As a character, Brie also stood out in this novel. I thought her voice, her way of thinking, the way she viewed and responded to certain situations, and the decisions she made seemed very realistic for a barely-sixteen-year-old teenager. While her age allowed me to really sympathize with her situation — heartbreak is horrible, especially when it (literally) turns your world upside down — it truly seemed like Brie was dealing with it the best way she could, given the circumstances. However, I also appreciated that Brie wasn’t a static teenager. She made decisions sometimes impulsively, sometimes emotionally, without even thinking, and at times she overreacted in the way a girl in her situation, with her life experience, would. But she also allowed herself to learn from her mistakes, to make better decisions in the future, to truly think about things a little more before reacting to them. Throughout the novel, she actually grows as a character, despite the fact that her life has ended.

Finally, what I love most about The Catastrophic History of You and Me is what it has to say about friendship and love. I’m a huge fan of stories that highlight the complexities of certain situations, how there are multiple sides to every story, many ways of seeing things from different perspectives. Jess Rothenberg implements these elements in this novel amazingly, highlighting how aspects of various relationships — the friendship between characters, the connection between a parent and a child, a romantic entanglement of any sort — can be more complicated than they seem on the surface. The things Brie learns about the people in her life through her journey in this book are invaluable, both for her as a character and for readers themselves.

Spoilery Scribbles

If I hadn’t picked up The Catastrophic History of You and Me for the title, I would have definitely checked it out for the cover. I love that she’s standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, looking down into the actual living world. Her focus on her life after she dies is the main point of the novel, so the cover fits the book well.

I’m not sure about how realistic the way Brie died is (her heart literally split into two in response to Jacob’s words), but I enjoyed the way the book attempted to base its occurrence on science. (Is it actually possible? I have no idea.)

Part of the story (when Brie suspected her friend might have had something to do with the reason Jacob broke up with her) seemed really predictable to me at first (I suspected something like that when she mentioned how close they were). However, I was surprised to find that everything I suspected and everything Brie assumed was wrong. I was glad to see that she didn’t have to spend her entire time in the after-life questioning all of her good relationships and wondering who had been lying to her for her entire life.

I like that this book is reflective without ever seeming too flashback-heavy.

Patrick’s presence, from his cool jacket to his never-ending supply of cheese jokes, never ceased to make me smile. I honestly didn’t expect to love him as much as I did. (Though I actually liked Jacob a little bit more… Don’t kill me!)

I’ll admit, I face-palmed a little when we finally heard what Jacob actually meant to say to her the night she died. (Poor choice of words, mate. You should have started with your second sentence!)

Though I hated the story-line about her dad and Mrs. Brenner, it seemed too real the way it happened. I can believe that a renowned cardiologist would be so upset about his teenager daughter dying when her heart and her health could not possibly have caused her to die the way she did… that he’d seek comfort in someone — anyone — who would allow him to obsess and freak out in peace. I can’t say I forgive him for doing this, but I can, to some extent, understand why he made this ridiculous decision. (What is wrong with you, sir?) He made me furious, but I liked what his story had to say about the way grief can make love difficult, even to the point where it isn’t enough to salvage a relationship (especially when one of the people, Dr. Eagen, isn’t ready to let go of his grief or grieve in a healthier way and would rather sacrifice everything for answers). (Brie’s father’s descent into madness also reminded me a lot of The Lovely Bones.)

Speaking of which, how did Brie even know that her dad sought the comfort of Mrs. Brenner after she died? What if he had been having an affair the entire time and she just wasn’t aware of it? (I don’t know why I’m torturing myself with this question. It’s better for me to just accept her conclusion as true because I like that idea better than the alternative…)

I adore the fact that all of the chapter titles are songs.

Brie’s group of friends and the strong relationship they had was actually one of my favorite things about this novel. And I loved that they discussed things like, ‘Which Disney princess are you?’ because that’s the kind of conversation I’d have with my friends.

I love that Jess Rothenberg illustrated perfectly how something as simple as a break-up is complicated. Jacob’s side of the story is just as important as Brie’s, and I really appreciated that he ended up being a layered individual and not just the jerk who told a girl he no longer loved her and (literally) broke her heart. (He actually ended up being one of my favorite characters.)

I wish we knew a little more about how Jacob turned his life around in the end, but I guess it wasn’t completely essential to the plot.

Patrick’s frequent use of Latin words and phrases made me flail when I first saw them, especially because he was using them in every-day conversation. I’m a bit of a Latin enthusiast, so seeing it in text makes me extremely happy.

Hamloaf is my new favorite dog name. (Can I have him for a pet?)

Though I enjoyed Jess Rothenberg’s portrayal of the after-life, I thought the pacing in it was a little off. For most of the novel, about 70%, it was kind of on the slow side, brilliantly indicative of the fact that you have no sense of time when you have seemingly all the time in the world in the after-life. However, towards the end of the book, the pacing changed abruptly, speeding up so unexpectedly that a lot of the things that happened in the ending didn’t stay with me as much as the rest of the novel. I enjoyed the “Lost Soul” plot (I was expecting it as soon as Patrick mentioned ‘bargaining’), but everything about his complicated past history with her, from a time that she didn’t even remember until he mentioned it, seemed a little random. It never felt like the story was heading in that direction at all, so that twist, that Patrick was a ‘guardian angel’ of sorts for her (since he loved her past life) just hit me out of nowhere and with only a few pages left in the book, I didn’t have enough time to accept that background, like I would have had that aspect of the plot been drawn out a little more. This new development, however, didn’t change my perception of Patrick or force a relationship between Brie and Patrick. Both of them were heading in that direction since the beginning, previous love history disregarded, so adding additional background for them did little to harm their already-present (amazing) dynamic.



Overall, The Catastrophic History of You and Me is thought-provoking, exploring the concepts of grief, love, and perspective in a realistic manner. Readers seeking a complex contemporary novel with an engaging protagonist and a story worth telling should pick it up.



Aimee

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. beckireads
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 08:55:51

    I haven’t read this book, and to be honest it’s not really been on my radar but your review made it sound really interesting. I will have to keep an eye out for it.

    Reply

    • aimee
      Jan 07, 2013 @ 11:10:05

      Thank you! It’s a really interesting contemporary novel (I don’t think I’ve ever read one quite like it), and I really loved the characters and the way it was written. I hope you like it as much as I did!

      Reply

  2. Christa
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 12:22:50

    I am so hesitant about this book because of the whole “dying of a broken heart” thing. But I have yet to see a bad review for it so maybe it’s time for me to venture outside my comfort zone

    Reply

    • aimee
      Jan 07, 2013 @ 13:17:43

      The “actually dying from a broken heart” thing weirded me out too (because it seemed too melodramatic to be real), but that’s actually not what TCHoYaM is about (and the book even attempts to explain how such a thing is possible… though I’m still not sure about that…). It’s an interesting book with a bizarre premise, but it somehow makes it work, and I really enjoyed reading it.

      Reply

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