The Last Forever
by Deb Caletti
Published by Simon Pulse
Genre: Young Adult Lit
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
3.5 / 5
The motif of motherless daughters has been well mined by YA authors over the years. Whether dead mothers or absent, either physically or emotionally, we have seen this thread before.
But perhaps we have not seen it quite as it is presented here.
Tessa’s mother died of cancer about a year ago, and during those intervening months, she has realized that there is no such thing as “forever.” Everything changes. Her relationship with her boyfriend isn’t what it once was – not that it ever was all that much anyway – and her friendships are altering as well. But perhaps nothing changed quite so much as her relationship with her father.
Always a rather flighty man – he’s bedecked in a pony tail and smokes pot not so much as a pastime but more as a necessity – he has become untethered since his wife died. It’s as if he has forgotten that Tessa is his daughter, that she is HER daughter, and that she grieves too.
Tasked by her mother to watch over a Pixiebell plant, supposedly the last of its kind, Tessa looks upon it as her last living link to her mother. There is symbolism aplenty here, almost to the point of being heavy handed. Caletti begins each chapter with a description of some sort of plant, and the description in turn becomes the theme of the chapter. Again, it’s a bit much, but some of the plant descriptions were humorous.
When Tessa’s father decides to go on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she packs up Pixiebell and heads with him. Even though she still has a few school days to go. Even though she leaves before she lets her boyfriend or BFF know.
After gazing upon the natural wonder, her dad suggests they keep going, head north to Portland, Oregon. Tessa realizes at this point that she has no say in the matter, but when they arrive at the home of one of her father’s friends – a female friend named Mary – Tessa is none too pleased. Worse, her father decides to extend the trip to Parrish Island, his hometown near Seattle, where they will visit his mother, Tessa’s grandma Jenny.
Jenny has been largely absent from Tessa’s life, and the girl has only vague memories of visiting when she was two. Tessa’s all for a family reunion, but when her father bolts the following morning with no notice to Tessa, she is devastated. Her mother died, and now she’s been abandoned by her father as well.
Fortunately, the one place Tessa knows to turn to that can provide her solace is books, and there is a library on the island. This proves to be a bastion not only for emotional succor, but it introduces her to new friends as well, none more important than Henry Lark.
Tessa is captivated by him, and she feels an immediate connection. They bond over Pixiebell, which Tessa has noticed is beginning to look … ill. Henry helps Tessa learn more about the plant, and, of course, more about herself as well.
There are several plot threads running through the book. Tessa’s relationship with Henry, for one, and hers with Jenny. Pixiebell’s increasing fragility and all that it represents is another, as is Tessa’s relationship with her father. She is furious with him, and rightly so. She imagines that he is seeking his balm from Mary, and that outrages her perhaps more than being abandoned with a grandmother she does not know.
The love story between Tessa and Henry tends to occupy center stage, largely because it is through this lens that Tessa views herself most critically. She loves him, even as she realizes that there is much about him that we do not know. Henry’s mystery is quite easily solved, so much so that the only person it shocks is Tessa; we readers know long before she does what secret Henry hides. Jenny knows, or suspects, but does not tell Tessa, a betrayal Tessa feels to her marrow, even if Jenny’s reasons for doing so are valid.
You will need some tissues, as there are several heartbreaking moments. You also will need to remind yourself that Tessa’s father is a fictional character because otherwise, you might want to seek him out and punch him in the face.
Tessa’s circle of friends on Parrish Island includes requisite Quirky People, and her quest to immortalize Pixiebell is loaded with symbolism and allegory. But despite these obvious manipulations, this is an engrossing story that will hook you and make you care. Tessa is lovely, her struggle occasionally crushing, and her victories warming.
There is quite a bit to enjoy about this book, and Caletti tells her story in an approachable, engaging style. If occasionally Pixiebell’s importance feels too heavy handed, we have Tessa – lovely, wonderful Tessa – to make up for it.