Published by Harper Teen on July 8th, 2014
Genres: contemporary, young adult
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A gorgeous and visceral page-turner reminiscent of the film Memento, The Half Life of Molly Pierce is perfect for fans of Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere and Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall.
For all of her seventeen years, Molly feels like she's missed bits and pieces of her life. Now she's figuring out why. Now she's remembering her own secrets. And in doing so, Molly uncovers the separate life she seems to have led . . . and the love that she can't let go.
Sometimes books are good – great, even. They’re adventurous and breathtaking and twisty and turny. They surprise us and they blow us away. Their characters are like friends, leaping off the pages. Sometimes books are compelling and sometimes the writing is gorgeous and delicious. Sometimes they make your heart stop. They’re just that good.
And then sometimes, reading a book is a like looking in a mirror.
That’s how it was for me, reading The Half Life of Molly Pierce. It was like the author read my mind, knew exactly how I feel, and plucked the thoughts and experiences, the feelings, right out of my head and laid them out on the page so that I can look at them almost objectively and so that I could know that someone else gets it. Someone else understands the hell that is living with mental illness, the hell that is not having total control over yourself, the hell that is not knowing if your thoughts are your own. It’s like Katrina Leno cracked me open and spilled my insides all over her pages and turned them into something beautiful and worth considering.
I’ve read a lot of heartbreaking contemporary novels. There are a thousand examples of YA books about depression and suicide and self-harm. And I’ve connected to them, sure. But there aren’t many books about thought disorders, psychosis, dissociation. And what’s out there is almost always about a secondary character having these symptoms. This time, though, it’s the main character. Molly herself is the one living through this, she’s the one waking up with gaps in her memory, performing self-checks, and piecing together the empty spaces of her day. She’s the one who feels the guilt and shame of putting this burden on her family. She is the one with secrets – even sometimes keeping them from herself. Molly is the one who struggles every day just to pull herself out of bed and brush her teeth and wash her face. This time, it’s the main character, and because of that, we’re finally face to face with exactly what it’s like to live with – and be controlled by – a debilitating mental illness.
This book killed me, and not just because of the stellar plot or the characters I grew to love. What spoke to me was the realness of it, how authentic it was. Like I said, Molly could be me. I don’t have dissociative identity disorder. But I do know what it’s like to lose time, to feel like I’m losing myself. I know what it’s like to not know if I’m really thinking and feeling what’s going through my head. I know what it’s like to have a very tenuous grasp on reality. And because Molly knows what that’s like too, this book was invaluable to me. It validated me.
But even without this huge connection I felt to the book and to Molly, and of course the compelling and frenetic voice of the novel, I would have thoroughly enjoyed The Half Life of Molly Pierce anyway. This isn’t the thriller/mystery I was expecting – it’s not a total mindfuck with a twist ending. In the end it’s the story of a girl trying to piece her life together while living with dissociative identity disorder. But it’s also the story of a girl who witnesses a fatal motorcycle crash, and watches a stranger die. A stranger who somehow knows her, but she doesn’t know him. So there is a mystery there, and it was compelling and thoughtful and exciting.
And the characters felt so whole. Molly’s family wasn’t just background noise, cardboard cutouts there to serve a purpose. Instead they had their own lives to live, their own conflicts, and their own ways of dealing with Molly’s illness. Her brother and sister, Clancy and Hazel, both teenagers themselves, had their own personalities. And I loved that their family owns and runs a bookstore. I thought it was a great way to incorporate booklovers into the story without feeling like it was pandering to the audience or trying too hard. Molly’s best friends, Luka and Erie made the perfect companions for Molly. They were so understanding of her situation, they knew how to deal with her depression. But at the same time, they didn’t take those things as excuses and called Molly out on her bullshit when she wasn’t being the best friend she could be. And then there’s Lyle, the boy who died in the crash, and Sayer. I don’t want to talk to much about them, though, because I feel it’s best to get to know them on your own while you read. I didn’t feel as close to Lyle as I could have, but I felt like I understood him. I understood his anger and his rage. I didn’t particularly like how entitled he was, but at least that obnoxious part of him felt real. And Sayer? Basically, my heart broke for him.
In the end, this is an uplifting and heartwarming story. I don’t know too much about DID, or how the alters work, and if they really act and feel the way Molly’s did. I just don’t know how much of this was true to the illness and how much liberty the author took in that regard. But the ending is positive, though not a happily ever after, maybe a happy for now. I think if the author chose to end it any other way, the book would have suffered.
I don’t know what else I can say. The voice is compelling, the writing is sometimes flowery and over the top, but depicts what’s going on in Molly’s head perfectly. Katrina Leno treated mental illness with grace and respect and with honesty that we all need. I don’t think I could ever fully express how this novel affected me – I will reread it forever and know that there’s someone out there who understands me and what it’s like to live with what I live with. The Half Life of Molly Pierce was exactly the book I needed at exactly the time I needed it. I hope you all can find a book like that, too.