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through with you

When I am Through With You, Stephanie Kuehn
Dutton, August 2017
Reviewed from a final copy

Today I get to talk about one of my favorite authors, Stephanie Kuehn. She has a new title out this year, When I am Through With You, and it got some comment-love earlier in the season as one to definitely include on our longlist. It’s always so fun to dive back in with an author that you like; this time around, we’re looking at a title with one starred review. We have a story that ends up being a somewhat mixed bag, at least for me; it’s a psychological thriller combined with survival fiction — a group of teens working through a lot of trauma and feelings must survive a school camping trip beset by a blizzard.

There’s a lot going on here — almost too much, really; but I’d like to talk first about what does work. The setup, for sure: Ben reveals that he’s writing this confession from jail, that he killed Rose, and that he doesn’t expect absolution or forgiveness. His narration hints at the high costs of the trip, which helps ramp up the suspense as well; I spent a lot of the novel waiting for some brutal deaths, which definitely kept me reading. Though it’s not a perfect read, that set up — the sense that Ben is hiding some crucial information, that he’s taking us through a dark, inevitable horror show in the mountains, that there’s much more to the story than newspapers or courtrooms will ever reveal — is very strong, and soaks through the narrative.

The teens’ relationships, too, are complicated and caring. The early reference to Lord of the Flies gives Kuehn a lot of material to play with in terms of her survivalist fare; so many parts of this novel work as an effective rebuttal to that classic — yes, people do terrible things, but often in the name of compassion and caring. From the jump, we are reading an involved, thorny take on morality, giving its characters space to communicate and care, even in the most brutal way possible.

Another element to consider is the work that Kuehn puts in to examine perception and relationships. This is strong in the way the teens deal with each other; they understand each other intimately, and allow this understanding to guide their actions overall — again, rebutting much of LotF.

But this layered work is not always as strong as it needs to be to sustain the narrative. When the teens talk to and about each other, there’s a little too much telling rather than showing. All of the characters were very conversant in talking about their (and each other’s) deep and dark traumas, but instead of upping the stakes it made the narrative feel rather implausible.

The short chapters keep you reading, but the plot overall drags around the ⅔ mark, especially in day three. The novel is working to be both a psychological thriller and a survival story, and the tension of the survival story too often takes a backseat to the backstories, histories, and underlying wounds the characters carry. Both narrative elements have to be perfectly balanced for this story to work. The overarching set up and quick chapters pulled me through it, but my interest notably flagged at certain points.

I think the part I’m most uncertain about is the inclusion of preacher and the (spoiler) non-bank robbers. On the one hand, their presence allows even more assumptions to be made and allows us as readers to question the character’s perceptions and decisions; this is really what drives the teens into chaos and (for some) death. The inclusion doesn’t allow any of the characters off the hook, morally, for what happens, but it does provide another outside force that shapes their disastrous camping trip. Does including these outsiders break the LotF rebuttal or strengthen it? I found it overly complicating, and hurriedly wrapped up in the end, so for me it didn’t work.

So where do I see this in RealPrintz talk at the RealTable? Despite my fandom, I’m not sure this will walk away with a medal this year. What do you all think?


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