Emmy, on how she found herself at Heartland Academy: I was told I could return to school once seven days was up and I issued an apology to me so horny-singing Danny Schwartz. Naturally, I declined. So then they declined to let me back in.Justin, on how he found himself in the same place: I tried to kill myself. Tylenol. And my dad walked in on what should have been a wonderful blow job. From a chick. I should point that out. And I failed all my classes last year and I’m pretty much an asshole.
Of course, both of their situations are more complicated than that—as an adoptee, Emmy feels like the odd woman out in her family, and she’s got issues with food that are well on their way to being life-threatening, while Justin’s relationship with his father is only the tip of his own personal iceberg—but neither of them expects to actually learn anything at Heartland. Especially not from the other kids in group therapy: a girl with selective mutism, a video game addict, a refugee with anger management issues, and a tiny girl with a huge mouth and a tendency towards Hulking out.
Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin’s A Really Awesome Mess is a he-said, she-said story about finding your way through pain, anger, loneliness and grief...through love, forgiveness and friendship. And just in case it’s starting to sound a bit too mushy for your tastes, keep in mind that there are also plenty of hijinks, including lots of illegally obtained porn and a purloined piglet.
It isn’t as emotionally raw or honest as Blake Nelson’s Recovery Road, and it doesn’t have the immediacy of Amy Reed’s Clean: It reads more like the literary version of a music montage of working out one’s problems, rather than the it-takes-time-and-hard-work nitty-gritty of real life. The characters—primary and secondary—have breakthroughs right and left, and while the lack of true backsliding is supernice for them, it’s not all that reflective of reality, and to a degree, it minimizes the gravity of their various conditions.
Emmy and Justin and the others—especially the others, actually—are hugely likable, though, and the dialogue is especially good: The constant epiphanies aside, they’re all as profane and politically incorrect and funny as any group of bright young teens that I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. So while it doesn’t have the depth or the truth of the Nelson or the Reed, it’s still an enjoyable, light-ish read despite some of the darker subject matter, and it’s bound to please the usual suspects (fans of alternating narratives, fans of contemporaries that deal with heavy issues, fans of stories that deal with group therapy, etc.).
If you’re looking for something that reads just as easy but has a bit more weight, may I point you back to 2010’s The Half-Life of Planets, by Brendan Halpin and Emily Franklin? THAT ONE. That one is smart, funny, original, memorable, adorable AND emotionally resonant. Love it, and wish it had more of a following.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.