People were living their lives, doing everyday things, when suddenly the planes hit, and time ripped into two pages titled ‘Before 9/11’ and ‘After.’ With their clumsy stories, they are saying: ‘We all felt it. We remember where we were when the world changed.’
But what about those of us who could not remember that day? I’ve seen the footage, watched the big, clumsy planes crash into the towers like some sort of low-budget action film. Which is worse? To know that things used to be different, or to have never known that more innocent day at all?*
All We Have Left is a story about two girls affected by one of the most infamous moments in US history, the attacks of September 11th. Although they don’t know it, that day left its mark on them in ways that will bring them together 15 years later. Alia and Jesse’s stories are woven together through past and present, before and after. All We Have Left brings up the questions that many dealt with in the aftermath of 9/11: whether they were there, like Alia; someone who lost a loved one, like Jesse; or one of the many who just remember. What do you do when the world has changed and you can’t understand why? What do you do when your family has been fractured out of your control?
Although September 11th happened 15 years ago, the setting is very contemporary. All We Have Left is divided into the two periods, the now and then. The “then” is very vivid, even before it gets into the events of that day. I felt that it was the strongest of the two settings, even though I thought that the characters were weaker. The “now” is up to date with what’s going on in the world, especially in relation to racism, terror, and the way that they’re sometimes horrifically connected. The characters in the “now” setting were initially very bland and typical of a young adult high school setting. I was glad that it switched between the two.
Both Alia and Jesse grew on me as I continued to read. At first, I only liked Alia. There was tension in her family and changes that she was going through against the backdrop of a historical event. In contrast, Jesse came off as a whining brat. She had a hard time growing up with the shadow of the death of her brother hanging over her and her family, but I didn’t feel that it was portrayed very well at first. Part of this was due to the fact that the book began slowly. It only allowed Jesse’s storyline to be the cliched high school one. Eventually as the story continued I found myself eager to see what would happen next with her. I ended up being interested in what Jesse did because she was a character who was alive during this event, but too young to remember. I liked that the author used her as an example of the many people who were young during this time. There’s a definite disconnect from not being conscious of the event at the time. Jesse is interesting because although she was too young, she does have that anger and sadness from losing a loved one. I liked that both sides were inside of her character.
Something that I thought Wendy Mills did well was her presentation of Islam in the book. I’m not sure how correct it is because I only know as much as I’ve learned in the few religion classes I’ve taken. I really liked how Adam and Alia looked at the world around them. Adam especially, because he had to deal with people treating him differently due to prejudice after September 11th. Even though there was this prejudice against them, they both looked at the world in a clear way. I really enjoyed that he was able to teach Jesse (and hopefully the reader) about how he saw the world.
All We Have Left, although written in a dual narrative, is primarily about Jesse’s growth. Because her brother died when she was really young, she’s not really known life any differently. I liked that Wendy Mills charted how she came out under the shadow of that and the way that it had fractured her family. We as readers know that Alia and Jesse’s brother are connected, but it takes a long time for Jesse to discover that. The mystery of why her brother was in the Towers is something that has so haunted her family that it was interesting to read as Jesse went about solving it. Another thing that I appreciated was the fact that Mills didn’t let the little romance that was in the book cheapen the more important aspects of it. I would have felt very annoyed and cheated had this book changed tact.
The hardest part about reviewing this book is trying to understand how much of it was I genuinely liked it and how much of it is the emotional connection I had to the characters and my past. It’s hard to read and review a book when it makes you emotional. I’m not sure if I’m emotional because of the book or because it’s about an event that was a shocking part of my childhood. I feel like it masked issues I had with the book, which is why I’ve taken so long to get my thoughts together on it. While it was a good book and I thought that the characters, both main and supporting, were written well, I do think that I was blinded a bit by my own personal memories of that day.
What was good about this book is that the ending leaves Jesse and the reader with hope that she will find peace. Through Jesse, hopefully the reader has found a little bit of peace as well. Although the world is oftentimes full of horrible things, people will always stand up to help and support the others around them. I found the ending very emotionally touching. I recommend this book for readers who like dual narratives and who maybe want to discover a little bit about how the world around them still needs to change for the better.
I received a copy of All We Have Left from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All We Have Left will be available on August 9th, 2016.
*Quotes come from an advance reading copy and may be different in the final release.