We Are Okay
Life is made of transitions; of countless moments that carry us from one point to the next. More often than not, stories focus on these transitions, because transitions incite change, and from change comes tension. In her fifth novel, We Are Okay, author Nina LaCour (Hold Still, You Know Me Well, Everything Leads to You) cultivates a particularly strong sense of tension that ebbs and flows over the course of only 234 pages. This tension is possible because of the state of transition in which LaCour has placed her characters—both mentally and physically. The story is subtle and relatively reserved, allowing those various, emotional states of transition to accentuate the unstoppable nature of change; though there are some constants that even a complete metamorphosis can’t shake.
We Are Okay follows Marin, a Freshman at an unnamed East coast college, as she spends her first winter break alone in the dorms. Though we are in Marin’s point of view, the details as to why she has no one to stay with on Christmas are fuzzy—all we know is that she can’t stay with her grandfather, whom she lived with back home in Los Angeles. She won’t be completely alone, however. Marin’s best friend from California, Mabel, is coming to stay for three days, but Marin’s relationship with Mabel is even more complicated and clouded than her relationship with her grandfather. Over the course of these three short days, we are exposed to the emotional toll that isolation and major changes have on Marin and, through seamless jumps in time, we learn why so much has changed in the first place.
At the novel’s start, Marin finds herself in a classic state of transition: grief.
Moving from a life with something into a life without it. Marin grieves for her home, her relationships, and the way her life used to be. LaCour expresses Marin’s grief through isolation; isolation not only from other people, but from Marin herself. She is in denial, unable to face the things that she grieves. But what has happened to her—the secrets that are kept from us—pulls at Marin constantly, and it forces her to acknowledge her past piece by piece. This isolation and silence allow Lacour to keep valuable information from the reader until it is time for the story—and Marin—to reveal it. The result is an exquisite push and pull of tension. Her readers are tantalized by the dramatics of the story, but we aren’t allowed to actually understand them until the last possible moment.
LaCour uses another classic transitional period to her advantage as the story is developed: going to college. Leaving home, starting a completely new phase of life, is something that everyone can relate to. Nothing creates more tension than taking a character out of their comfort zone and placing them somewhere completely new.
LaCour takes this transition and takes it a few steps further. Following the mysterious events that take place at the end of the summer, Marin drops everything and leaves for college without a single goodbye. She hasn’t even packed her things, arrives at school completely empty handed. Not only does LaCour take Marin out of her comfort zone, she takes away anything and everything that Marin could use for comfort. Additionally, she sends Marin to school on the opposite side of the country. The subsequent transition is jolting and does everything it can to take the readers out of their own comfort zones as well. Which leaves us completely open and susceptible to the profoundly strong variety of emotions that the story provokes.
When I read this book for the first time, I was so overcome with emotion that I didn’t quite know what to do. I found myself sitting on my bathroom floor late at night, crying uncontrollably for seemingly no reason at all. All I knew was that this book had struck every single chord that I could possibly have had. It left me feeling as though I had been violently scrubbed clean; everything in my head came pouring out at once. Months (and several rereads) later, I find it a bit simpler to articulate what this book has done for me. It is real in a way that I’ve never seen before. It perfectly translates the emptiness of depression and the strangeness of transition to the page. It is magnificently written—the pacing, details, and dialogue all working in seamless harmony. It is a million other things that I may not ever be able to write down. We Are Okay is equally striking and soft, simple and surprising; it takes its readers somewhere that I highly doubt they have ever been before.
Reviewed by Katherine Martin
Published by Penguin Random House