As readers, we’re drawn though a book because we care about the character, or we want to know what happens. But for a book that is a meditation on grief, something else has to pull us through this dark and potentially boggy place. In We Are Okay, Nina LaCour offers a handful of narrative threads the pattern revealed just enough so we can't see the full picture, but we know it's there. We want to figure out what she isn’t telling us.
We Are Okay, is a short but complicated book. It shifts in time, and there are symbolic layers woven into the story from start to finish. LaCour tells us a lot in the first few chapters, but most importantly for this work, she let’s us know upfront that she will withhold important information, like the narrator’s name.
The first sentence tells us about a character we will never actually meet, only hear about. “Before Hannah left, she asked if I was sure I’d be okay. She had already waited an hour past when the doors were closed for winter break until everyone but the custodians were gone. […] She had run out of ways to fill time, so when I said, “Yes, I’ll be fine,” she had nothing left to do except try to believe me.” (1) We have to wait twenty pages to learn the main character’s name.
This sense of unease – who is talking to me? – and the breadcrumbs of the first two chapters keep us moving. We know she’s in a dorm, tomorrow Mabel will arrive, but we don’t know what Mable’s relationship is to our narrator. On page three we learn that the protagonist arrived in this dorm two weeks after Gramps died, but we don’t know how Gramps died, what the significance of his death is, and how that connects to the dorm story. We’re curious.
We watch “her” try to give her side of the dorm room a personality, but she destroys her decorations because Mable knows her best and won’t be fooled. There’s mystery here. We wonder what she’s hiding from her college classmates and Hannah, but we don’t know why she’s wiped her personality and background clean. We finally learn her name at the end of Chapter 2, when Mable arrives, calls her parents, and says to them “Marin’s right here.” (20) These moments of connection, past to present, signal that we will, eventually put the pieces together. It’s a minor relief that gives us the strength, or reward, to move forward.
We Are Okay is an example of how an author can carefully choose the right secrets and mete out clues to propel a story forward.
Chapter three goes back in time, indicated by a small note – May – under the chapter number. The chapters in the scenes set in the present don’t have months.
The story unfolds in a mysterious back-and-forth between present and past, and the threads are brought together, one story line connecting with the other, until we see the full picture. In her podcast, LaCour refers to We Are Okay as a "quiet" book, but it was not quiet in my mind as I read. I was hungry for the next clue, the next twist, the next missing puzzle piece.
We Are Okay is an example of how an author can carefully choose the right secrets and mete out clues to propel a story forward. There’s a balance between the main character’s journey forward from the past and the unfolding present that has to be carefully managed so each half of the story structure feels complete. Timing is everything.
At the end, LaCour leaves us with enough closure to feel satisfied, but not sweetly Disneyfied. This is a book I wondered about after I read it.
As readers, we like a puzzle, we like to figure things out, whether the puzzle comes in familiar structure (romance, mystery) or a new shape, like this book.
As writers, our challenge is to keep the reader wondering. Too many answers, and the reader is bored. To few answers and the reader is left in the dark.
Our goal is to drop questions and answers, bright crumbs of curiosity, on our walk through the woods.