Book Review: Break, by Hannah Moskowitz

June 1, 2011 at 9:00 am (Book Reviews) (, , , )

Break a bone and it knits back stronger. Get through the pain, get through the recovery, and there’s something stronger, something better. Snap. Splint. Strengthen.
Jonah is on a mission. There are 206 bones in the human body and he’s out to break them all, to knit them back into a better pattern, some kind of strength that can resonate through him into a family that needs it more than anything. To a brother and best friend with countless deadly allergies. To a baby brother who hasn’t stopped crying and screaming in eight months. To parents who rely on faith and arguments to contain problems they can’t possibly control.
Snap. Splint. Strengthen.

This is not a comfortable book.

There are so many books with which we curl up on the couch in our pajamas, ready to disappear into a world that gently cradles us within its story and environs, and when we close it afterwards it’s with a soft touch and a long stretch. This is not one of those books. This is a book that makes you actually cringe, that makes your skin crawl with the physical echo of pain. You don’t close the book and stretch; you hold it to your chest like an anchor and curl around it until you remember how to breathe. This is not a comfortable book.

And that just might be my favorite thing about it.

Will is consumed by his family, by the completely out-of-control nature of everything that’s going on, that’s been going. His entire life has revolved around trying to take care of Jesse, trying to make sure that he isn’t exposed to any number of things to which he is deathly allergic, trying to make sure he’s taken care of when it does happen. It doesn’t help that in the past eight months, their own house has become a landmine. It’s always been a hazard, given that the other family members need to eat and Jesse is allergic to almost everything, but since the birth of baby Will- and the fact that their mother is breastfeeding him- just touching the baby could be enough to set off a reaction. Jesse fights against his limitations by throwing himself into life, working out, playing sports, but despite the fact that Jonah has a not-girlfriend, an after school job, and hope to one day be an architect, his life is entirely wrapped around his brother.

This is something you see in families with long-term illnesses or health considerations. Long-term caretakers get so wrapped up in their loved ones that they actually define themselves by the need to take care of things, to take care of them. Jonah defines himself- not consciously, but he does- by needing to take care of Jesse. No one can do it as well as he can, including Jesse, no one else is as worried, no one else realizes the nature of the dangers. Everything circles around that need.

Which is where we get to the breaking.

The first one was an accident, a car wreck that left him with casts and the realization that some things can actually be made stronger by being broken. It isn’t hard to see the appeal in this line of thought. It’s not about the pain, it’s not about the destruction or the sympathy, and it’s certainly not Munchausens. It’s not actually about the breaking- it’s about the becoming stronger. And perhaps, though he denies it, there’s also something appealing to having one thing- just one thing- that he can consciously control. He can choose the timing, the way he arranges the incidents, even whether or not his friend Naomi films them.

In many ways, this book travels through perceptions. Jonah is our narrator so everything we see is colored by his perception, but as the readers, we form our our perceptions as well, which don’t always agree. It’s not that we get jarred out by these moments; we don’t. They actually add to it, because it draws us further into Jonah’s confusion, into what it means to be in his world and in his head. What we see of people is largely determined by Jonah’s opinion of them, except where we get to see the things that Jonah relates but overlooks, or where we get to determine our our interpretations of their actions.

Like Naomi. Jonah doesn’t think too deeply into his friend, other than occasionally wondering why she’s so gung ho for his breaking. To him, she’s simply always there, the tomboy who can always be relied upon. He never stops to think that there might be more to her or that other people might see her in another way. Or Jesse. Jonah deeply admires his brother, admires how incredibly kick-ass he is, how he works out and plays hard, but there’s also a very large part of Jonah that worries that Jesse doesn’t even want to take care of himself, a worry exacerbated by his brother’s actions. We see how their mother clings to faith, how their father clings to blaming their morther, but we don’t see deeper than that. He says they never take the precautions they should, that they just don’t care but- this is a big but- think about how many teenagers see their parents in the exact same way. The way we tell a story, the way we tell someone else about a conversation or an argument or a mistake, the way we tell anyone anything is colored by the way we see it. By our perceptions. I wish we could have seen more of the other characters- and by more I probably mean deeper- but I get why we didn’t. We’re limited to Jonah’s view of the world for the most part.

We touch on a lot of things in this book. We touch on destructivism, on legal responsibility, on mental health care, on moral strength and debts, on what it means to live versus what it means to simply be alive, on the strength we can find not just in that stretch of healing but in the simple state of being broken. Before it knits back, before it’s fixed, there’s something a strength in accepting that something is broken.

More than anything, that’s what stuck in my head, hours and hours after I finished the book. Jonah is not a role model. He’s not someone others should base their decisions on, this is not a book you give to someone to help them work through their own issues. And that’s fantastic. Books don’t have to be more than they are, they don’t have to try “fix’ anything. They don’t have to tie off neatly with all the problems resolved, don’t have to have a happy ending, and they don’t have to teach a lesson. We’re going to pull lessons from them no matter what simply because a book- a good book- is going to resonate with us in some way, is going to make us think about things and come to some realizations on our own. We’ll teach ourselves some lessons because of a book, but the book doesn’t have to teach us.

So, hours later, when we’re lying in bed staring up at the ceiling and waiting for thoughts to settle so we can sleep, we discover the things that affected us most about the book. For me, it was that state of being broken. There’s a moment- when everything falls apart, when everything’s shattered, before we can look forward to the healing- there’s a moment of absolute peace. There’s a serenity in that state of being broken. Healing has its own hazards- explanation, infections, unwanted sympathy- and obviously the physical act of breaking is massively painful, but in that moment of simply being broken there’s a peace. Impossible to describe or explain, impossible to fit into words even in your own mind, there’s a moment where everything else, all the things you can’t fix and can’t control, all the things that were never really yours to worry over, everything else just goes away into a single, simple point.

This is a book that makes no promises, no guarantees. This doesn’t give you easy answers on a silver platter. This isn’t a book that tries to do anything.

And it’s a book that changes your life.

For every person, it’ll leave a different mark, let you change and grow in a different way.

So read this book. It’s painful and graphic and in your face, and it is not at all a comfortable book.

And that’s what makes it quite so amazing.

Until next time~

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