Vivi is thrilled to be spending the summer in the Californian beachside town of Verona Cove. Not only is ‘every detail so perfect that it feels like a film set’, it’s also a world away from Seattle, where Vivi ‘…got too low. And then too high…’ and hurt a lot of people, including herself. The beach feels like a fresh start. She’s found a summer job at the local craft store, befriended the grumpy police chief and started painting again. She’s secretly stopped taking her prescribed medication, but life is on the upswing.
Jonah just wants to make it through the summer. It’s been six months since his dad died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Since then, his mum has taken to staying in her room, leaving Jonah and his elder brother and sister to keep house and look after their three younger siblings. To make things worse, the restaurant where Jonah works, which his dad co-owned with his best friend, is having money problems. Finding a girlfriend is the furthest thing from Jonah’s mind.
When Vivi and Jonah meet, it’s love at first sight. And for awhile, it seems that they’re a perfect match. Vivi doesn’t just love Jonah, she loves his family and is a huge help looking after the littles. Jonah, for his part, surprises Vivi with gourmet meals and midnight walks along the beach, and he knows not to ask about the crooked scar on her wrist. But as Vivi’s moods become increasingly unpredictable, and Jonah has to start thinking about how he’s going to manage when his elder siblings leave for college in the fall, they have to consider: can they be together when everything’s falling apart?
When We Collided is a bittersweet love story that explores the idea that you have to be able to help yourself before you can support someone else.
The narrative alternates between Vivi and Jonah’s stories, and I hit it off with Vivi right from the start. She’s sassy and confident, a tad unpredictable and loads of fun. In her words: ‘Most of the things I do in life are for flavor, not necessity.’ As you may have picked up from the synopsis above, Vivi is bipolar, though she hasn’t fully ‘accepted her diagnosis’. She’s taking the antidepressants she needs, but not her lithium, which keeps her from getting manic—she throws her daily dose off a cliff each morning. Every chapter her energy gets a bit higher and her actions slightly wilder and more unpredictable as she edges away from having fun toward being out of control. In her author’s note the end of the book, Lord explains that When We Collided is ‘a love story in a world that looks a lot like mine’ and states: ‘I worry that we’re not talking about mental health enough’. I agree with that, and Lord approaches Vivi’s bipolar, Jonah’s grief and his mother’s depression with honesty and sensitivity. I particularly appreciated that she gives the reader the chance to get to know Vivi before introducing the fact that she has bipolar; bipolar is something she’s dealing with, but it’s not who she is, as Vivi explains it to Jonah:
That first night we went to the beach, I wore my nightgown because why not? That’s me. The day before… [spoiler] [spoiler] [spoiler] …I wore a threadbare nightgown all over town without caring that everyone could see…and well, I wouldn’t have done that. But there still would have been picnics and writing plays and making scavenger hunts.
That said, I’m not convinced When We Collided adds anything new to the conversation around mental health. In particular, there was a lot in When We Collided that reminded me of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park and John Green’s Looking for Alaska, both of which look at how relationships are affected by trauma and mental illness. And, I gotta be frank, When We Collided doesn’t have the emotional or thematic depth of those stories.
That said, Lord’s prose in Vivi’s chapters is sen-f*#&ing-sational. Hers is a vivid, heightened voice that I’m not sure you can get away with outside of YA, and I couldn’t get enough of it:
Even the constellations can see us now: we are seventeen and shattered and still dancing. We have messy, throbbing hearts, and we are stronger than anyone could ever know.
I loved Vivi because her world is chaotic and fragile and because she makes mistakes and hasn’t quite got her shit together. Jonah was harder to like. He’s just too darn perfect. He’s handsome and kind and understanding and selfless: even after a full day working in the restaurant and running around after his siblings, he still finds time to cook a special meal for Vivi or make some romantic gesture. He always knows just what to say, or not to say, as is more often the case. The worst thing he does is yell at his little brother and sister. Once. When they’re being total brats. And then he spends ages brooding over what a monster he is. He’s just so… boring.
And for me, he and Vivi’s relationship was kind of boring too. The instant they meet it’s: ‘Hi! I love you.’ And for the next few hundred pages it’s all moonlight swims, dress-up parties, beach days, bonfires, deep and meaningfuls about Lyfe and slip ‘n’ slides. It’s lovely, but I didn’t get that fluttery, giddy feeling I look for in a love story. There isn’t a lot of tension to drive things forward. It’s clear that Vivi is building up to a manic episode and that’s going to test the relationship and force Vivi and Jonah to have some difficult conversations. However, they get together right at the start of the story. Other things happen throughout, but nothing really challenges their relationship until right at the end. It gets a bit saggy in the middle.
The other thing that irked me was the lack of adult authority figures. And this is a larger problem with YA in general. Too often, either the protag’s parents/guardians are completely negligent (from reading YA you could be forgiven for assuming that most parents give zero f*$ks about their kids) or else turn up deus ex machina style to offer sage advice and help their kid out a whatever giant hole they’ve dug for themselves. In the case of When We Collided, parents may as well not be there for all the use they are. Jonah’s mum is understandable. She’s severely depressed and grieving for her husband. But Vivi’s mum is around. She and Vivi have a good relationship, so it doesn’t make sense that she doesn’t show more concern for her daughter. She’s the artsy, flaky type and, despite the fact that Vivi has recently been into some serious self-harm and spent time in a psych ward, she’s happy for her to come and go as she pleases and accepts Vivi’s word for it that she’s taking her meds. There’s also Felix, Jonah’s dad’s business partner. He’s struggling to keep the restaurant from financial ruin. The reader gets the impression that the business has been struggling for some time, but once Jonah discovers a stack of overdue bills, it only takes him and Felix’s daughter, Ellie, a matter of weeks to turn the business around. I’m all for empowering teenage characters, but this didn’t ring true.
Overall, When We Collided is a fun, fast read with some sparky prose, but the romance felt very ‘easy’ and the story as a whole doesn’t really offer anything new.
Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of When We Collided in exchange for an honest review.
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