The Year of the Beasts

I really didn’t know what to expect when I first started reading The Year of the Beasts. I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads, and the only things I knew going in were that I’d previously enjoyed books by the author, Cecil Castellucci, and the story was told in both prose and comics (drawn by the very talented Nate Powell). I was unprepared, then, for just how hard this book hit me.

At first, I thought I’d be reading a fairly typical tale of two sisters who grow apart because of a guy and then eventually find their way back to each other. Yeah…not so much. To say that this book defied and exceeded all of my expectations would be a gross understatement. The Year of the Beasts threw me for a loop, and I’m still thinking about how the story relates to my own life and my understanding of things like jealousy, love, and grief.

It all started when the carnival trucks rolled into town. That was the unofficial start of summer, a summer that would forever change everything for Tessa and her younger sister, Lulu.

For the first time, Tessa and Lulu are enjoying the carnival without the watchful eyes of their parents. They’re finally free to truly enjoy the food, the rides, the games…the boys. So when Tessa sees the opportunity to hang out with her crush, Charlie, and his friends, she seizes it.

Tessa, Lulu, and Tessa’s best friend Celina join up with Charlie and his buddies for a bit of fun at the carnival, but Tessa couldn’t know that this one outing would change her relationship with Lulu. Why? Well, as it happens, Charlie isn’t interested in Tessa. He wants Lulu…and Lulu wants him back.

Tessa is green with envy, but she tries her best to hide it. She doesn’t want to rain on her sister’s parade, but she can’t be wholly happy for her either. Charlie was supposed to be hers, not Lulu’s…and it feels like Lulu is taking every possible opportunity to throw her new boyfriend in her older sister’s face. It feels like Lulu, the younger of the two siblings, is growing up, moving on, and leaving Tessa in her wake.

Tessa’s only respite from the drama with Lulu, Charlie, and their assorted friends occurs in the arms of Jasper, the school outcast. Tessa finds a measure of peace when she’s alone with Jasper, but she doesn’t see how he can be part of her “real life” outside of the woods where they meet. Neither does he. No one even knows about them, and Tessa fears her friends’ reactions if they did. On top of that, even though Tessa is growing closer to Jasper, she still can’t let go of her jealousy over Lulu’s claim on Charlie. Why does Lulu, now Miss Popular, get to parade around with her boyfriend while Tessa has to keep her tenuous new relationship a secret? Nothing about this is fair in Tessa’s eyes, and she doesn’t know how to cope with all of the jealousy and rage bubbling within her.

Everything is about to come to a head for Tessa, Lulu, and company, and the summer that began with such promise will end in a tangle of envy, sadness, self-loathing, regret, grief, and–when all is said and done–a small measure of hope.

Will Tessa find some way to tame the monster raging within her and find the girl she used to be once again? Or will the events of this one tragic summer change her–and everyone around her–forever?

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I don’t know that the brief recap above in any way captures what happened in this book. It doesn’t even touch on the story presented in the comics. At first glance, the two stories don’t appear to be related, but, as the book progresses, the prose and the comics come together to create a story so intricately woven that I can scarcely believe that I ever thought they could be separate. While the prose tells of that one eventful summer that changed everything, the comics–presented in alternating chapters–show readers how grief and self-loathing can turn a person into something completely unrecognizable. How do the comics relate to Tessa’s story? Well, I’ll leave you with that one surprise, but I will tell you that I felt totally ripped to shreds by the book’s conclusion, and I’ll probably take a second look at the book’s art to see if I can pick up any clues that would have hinted at the emotional wreck that I was soon to become.

Now it’s time to get a little personal…

Truthfully, I think my strong feelings about this book come, at least in part, from my own experiences. Like Tessa, I have a younger sister. When we were teenagers, I sometimes felt like she had everything going for her. (To be perfectly honest, I still feel that way on occasion.) While I was the short, fat, near-sighted, bullied, tuba-playing nerd with braces, my sister was the tall, thin, athletic, blond girl who didn’t take crap from anyone. It was difficult to stand next to her and not wonder if everyone was thinking, “Well, I guess little sister is definitely the pretty one.” (Sometimes I didn’t have to wonder. People said those words out loud.) And things didn’t get any better for me when the guy I was madly in love with (or so I thought) had a thing for my sister. While she did not reciprocate his affections, the mere thought that he preferred her to me turned my overly dramatic teenage world upside-down. (If you’re reading this, you probably think I still haven’t recovered. You’d be right.) It was painfully easy to see my sister and me in the characters of Lulu and Tessa. I think that’s a big part of the reason why this book’s conclusion affected me the way it did. It made me examine what my teenage self would have done if she were faced with the same circumstances, and I have to admit I likely would have felt much like Tessa did.

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If your interest has been piqued by this post, I strongly urge you to give The Year of the Beasts a try. You won’t regret it. I think this is an excellent book for any reader in eighth grade and beyond.

To learn more about this amazing book, you can check out author Cecil Castellucci on her website, Goodreads, or Twitter, and graphic novelist Nate Powell on his website and Twitter.

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