Ever been at a point in your life, wondering where you belong? Ever feel like you have no place in this world, that you’re just drifting through life on autopilot? This is how nineteen-year-old Joy Jones has spent her life. Abandoned as in infant on the steps of a hospital, Joy had spent the her childhood and teens in group and foster homes, haunted by the constant feeling of unwantedness until she aged out of the system. She spends her days working a graveyard shift at a Stop & Shop, nursing an addiction to Robitussin, in hopes of keeping the memories of her troubled past at bay. She lives alone in a basement of an apartment building that has no windows, stating that her apartment is “like a tomb, the door a seal-would I ever get out?” As Joy questions the meaning of her existence, a sickness threatens to ravage the United States. With no official name, “the sickness” is a disease that causes individuals to suffer silver sores, memory loss and immediate death. One day, Joy is approached by a man in a hazmat suit, who invites her to join a program at the Hospital to find a cure for “the sickness”-as Joy discovers that she is immune to the disease. While she and seventy-three others are subjected to questionable treatments, she forms fragile bonds with some of the patients (like her roommate, Louis and the twins Christopher and Sam). As winter approaches, Joy breaks free and sets on a journey to find her birth mother, unknowingly unlocking the secrets to her past that she tried so desperately to hide, while also finding meaning in her life and what it means to love someone unconditionally.
I found “Find Me” to be a very compelling and unique read. Van den Berg is widely known for her short story works (“Isle of Youth” and “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us”), so for this to be her first attempt at writing a novel, I give it a three out of five stars.
First, the novel is split into two journeys: we begin with the Hospital where Joy is being held. She narrates her experience there, as well as recalls her life before the Hospital in (mostly) innate detail. The second half, Joy makes a cross-country trek to California to confront the mother she never knew, chronicling her trials and tribulations as well as discovering her self-worth. I liked how the author establishes the character (Joy) very well throughout the novel. Her voice can be heard clearly; it was like she was speaking directly to me because Joy was speaking, not only to herself but to someone who was willing to listen. For example: “I got on the wrong bus. I was not awake and not asleep and when I looked out the window, I was in Kendall Square. The bus stopped. I got out. The sky was a bruise. I was unsure of the time.” Joy’s attention to every detail pertains the theme that memory serves in the novel, particularly the first part when she is in the Hospital.
Unfortunately, this theme sort of dies down once she leaves the Hospital, causing the novel to lose some of its drive. The whole sickness is revolved around the recurring theme of memory, so it was disappointing when van den Berg strayed from it. I also noticed the novel tends to drag on a bit. Parts becomes stagnant when Joy is on the road (jumping from bus to bus, suddenly running into a childhood friend, getting trapped in a “haunted house”).
Some readers may find the narration a bit confusing and strange; Joy often goes off on tangents (habits of listing things off to prove that she’s not sick) and the narration often jumps back and forth between the past and the present, such when she is talking about “the sickness” and then switches to her childhood (the past): “Experts now say that the toll could be worse than the 1918 influenza, which left half a million Americans dead…. When I was a child, I lived for a time with a boy I grew to love.” Even though it might perplex a few readers at first, the author’s grammar and cues in the book helped establish the sudden switch.
All in all, I’d give this novel a three out of five for its unique take on a post-apocalyptic America with a female lead that struggles to find her worth in a world that is struggling to put itself back together.
About the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first novel, Find Me, published by FSG in 2015, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, and BuzzFeed, among others, in addition to being longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize.
About the Author of this Post: Tiara Hawkins