The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown
Before, Jessica has always struggled with anger issues, but come sophomore year that all changes when Vivi crashes into her life. As their relationship blossoms, Vivi not only helps Jess deal with her pain, she also encourages her to embrace her talent as an artist. And for the first time, it feels like the future is filled with possibilities. After In the midst of senior year, Jess’s perfect world is erased when Vivi suddenly passes away. Reeling from the devastating loss, Jess pushes everyone away, and throws out her plans to go to art school. Because art is Vivi and Vivi is gone forever.
Desperate for an escape, Jess gets consumed in her work-study program, letting all of her dreams die. Until she makes an unexpected new friend who shows her a new way to channel her anger, passion, and creativity. Although Jess may never draw again, if she can find a way to heal and room in her heart, she just might be able to forge a new path for herself without Vivi.
This book was so hard to read. Not because it was bad, but because it dealt with grief and the aftermath of loss. Jaye Robin Brown writes a really emotional, moving story about dealing with compounded grief – which is, like, really hard to deal with.
I related to Jess so much, honestly; I don’t struggle with anger management, and I’ve never lost a girlfriend or close friend. But I can understand her reactions and lashing out and isolating herself because I’ve been in such a similar place before. The Meaning of Birds doesn’t skimp on how Jess struggles with everything after losing Vivi, and I could sympathize entirely with how hard it is to readjust to normal life and how Jess feels like she shouldn’t be happy without Vivi. A lot of the side characters frustrated me, though; it felt like they were pressuring Jess to just “move on” from Vivi’s death, Levi especially.
I really adored Jess and Vivi’s relationship, though – they were incredibly cute, and I felt Jess’s love for Vivi and how painful it was for her to lose Vivi. Usually I’m not fond of books that constantly go between the past and the present, but I think it worked really well for this book. It showed Jess’s life with Vivi and how happy they both were, and contrasted it to after Vivi and Jess learning to find her way without Vivi. Here, I feel like the flashbacks added more of an emotional punch to the book than if it had just been divided into two sections.
One thing I liked is that The Meaning of Birds showed compounded grief, which is when a person experiences loss without really recovering from previous loss, and it isn’t something that you see in YA too often. Jess’s father had passed several years before Vivi, and her feelings about both get tangled up. I definitely think there are teens out there who might find this book helpful in knowing they’re not alone. Losing one person can dredge up old feelings, and I don’t think that’s talked about enough, in YA or anywhere. The book doesn’t prescribe some deeper meaning to death. Sometimes people die for no reason at all, seemingly out of the blue, and there’s no pretending otherwise in this book.
Another part that I felt was really important was how art was talked about as something that was both painful yet a way to cope. Jess is an artist, but after Vivi’s death, art is too painful for her to do, so she turns to blacksmithing instead as another art form, which was really neat. I also loved Greer and Eliza; they were probably my favourite side characters. We love adorable supportive lesbians. But Jess’s blooming interest in blacksmithing shows that it’s possible to find new, healthy things you enjoy after a loss. I really understood Jess’s feelings around art after Vivi died, and it was good to see her accept that it’s okay to grow and change.
There were a few things I felt were a tad questionable that took away from my experience of reading it. A couple off-hand comments about asexuality, bi/pansexuality, and trans women that rubbed me the wrong way, for example. These comments are not directly a/bi/trans-phobic, but it struck me as a bit iffy, especially because some of Jess’s views were never really addressed or challenged, and they were casual comments that didn’t add much to the story altogether.
Yes, this is a tragic book about a young lesbian losing her girlfriend, but it shows her learning to cope with it, even if there’s no “getting over” it. I think a lot of teens dealing with loss of all types could use this book. However, anyone who reads this should definitely have some tissues nearby, because–as you’d expect–it is horribly sad.
content warnings: death of a parent, death of a loved one, grief
Thanks to Edelweiss and HarperCollins for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.