by Alexandra Coutts
Published on November 10, 2015
by Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR
Synopsis from Goodreads: For seventeen-year-old Tam, running off to marry her musician boyfriend is the ideal escape from her claustrophobic high-school life on the island, and the ultimate rebellion against her father and stepmother. But when Tam becomes a widow just weeks later, the shell-shocked teen is forced to find her way forward by going back to the life she thought she’d moved beyond—even as her struggle to deal with her grief is forcing her to reinvent herself and reach out to others in ways she never imagined.
My take: I enjoyed Tumble & Fall, Alexandra Coutts's last book, so I wanted to try Young Widows Club. And I did enjoy this one too, despite the weird (for YA, that is) title and premise.
First, let's talk about the weirdness, of which there was quite a bit. The premise of the book is that seventeen year-old Tamsen marries her nineteen year-old boyfriend, and then he dies. I've read a YA book in which the main characters want to get married because one of them is about to be deported. I've read dystopian YA in which the characters are forced into a polygamous marriage or just forced into marriage. In fact, in YA dystopians and fairy tales, teens being forced into marriage is a common plot point.
So why did Tamsen and Noah (willingly) get married? The blurb suggests that she was trying to "escape from her claustrophobic life on the island," but that doesn't seem accurate to me. You don't need to be married to say, leave the island to go to college on the mainland. And after these teen lovebirds tie the knot, they don't escape from the island at all. They live in a Tiny House that Noah's dad built them. A house that's right next to Noah's parents' house. Uh, claustrophobic much?
Why does Tamsen say she got married? As she explains it, "I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Noah. Why wait?" Uh, because you're a seventeen year-old who can't even get married in the state of Massachusetts without parental permission. Because you haven't finished high school yet.
Next we have the problem of the inaccurate title. While "young widows club" is a very catchy one, there is really no such thing in the book. Yes, Tamsen joins a grief support group that is filled with widows and widowers. Many are relatively young, though Tamsen, that cruel girl, calls them "middle aged"... Sorry to break it to you, but there is no club of teenaged widows.
But when I managed to get past the gimmicky quality of the title and premise, I really liked this book. It's a quiet contemporary and I thought it was a moving grief story -- maybe one of the best grief stories that I've read recently. After Noah's death, Tamsen is confused. She's angry. She feels lost and alone. Many grief books add drama by having a character die under some sort of questionable circumstances, but Young Widows Club has Noah die in his sleep from some undiagnosed, congenital condition. I thought that was an interesting choice, because it made the book all about the grief.
The book's whole set-up was beautifully done as well. I think one of the hardest things about grief and loss is that the world just spins along, which feels confusing and wrong. In the story, Noah was in a band, and Tamsen has to deal with the fact that the band decides to move on without him, and to continue to use their old songs, many of which were written about Tamsen by Noah. There's a strong family element, as Tamsen's mother died when she was young and Tamsen's father remarried and had two more children. I really liked the way Tam's father had to struggle to come to terms with some of the ways he'd failed her as a parent as a result of his own grief, and how he worked hard to finally be the dad that she needed. And I loved the way the book showed that, in a grief situation, sometimes the people you thought you could count on let you down, but then you find support in completely unexpected places.
Okay, there's a bit more weirdness I didn't mention before. Let's just get it over with quickly, like pulling off a band-aid: Tamsen starts to fall for an older (*cough* twenty-six year-old *cough*) guy. In a regular YA without married teenagers who want to escape yet don't and then become widows, this kind of relationship would have been a huge deal breaker for me. But given all the other weirdness, I actually thought it worked. Go figure. It was a slow-moving and somewhat bumpy romance, which helped.
tl;tr: In the end, I really liked this. It's a very different book that you might expect, given the title. But if you're looking for a quiet sort of grief book, I suggest you give it a try.