I have to confess that I’m saddened, and a little surprised, by some of the reactions other reviewers have had to Pieces of Us. A lot of people have said that this book just isn’t for them, and I can support that – there’s a lot of content in Gelbwasser’s novel that’s hard to handle. What I can’t support are statements I’ve seen from people saying they’d be embarrassed to be caught reading the book, that it’s too inappropriate for teens to read, that the characters have no redeeming qualities.
Yes, reading Pieces of Us is a harrowing experience. Yes, it’s crude and full of profanity and graphic depictions of rape and abuse. Yes, it will make you cringe and rage and wish, at the end, that things had turned out differently. But you know what? It’s a powerful book, and as chilling as much of the content is, I am very glad that I read it.
The story centers on four teenagers – brothers Alex and Kyle, whose mother is a stripper, and sisters Katie and Julie, whose own mother has more in common with a high school “it girl” than with a normal parent – and how their lives are changed by each other’s actions and relationships.
The two families live in different states but come together every summer for a vacation in the Catskills. Spending the summer together has always felt like a release for the teens, who view it as a chance to shrug off the pressures and past mistakes of their “real” lives and become, at least temporarily, better people than they are at home. Katie can stop pretending to be the Golden Girl and try to forget the dirty little secret that has her living in fear and shame during the school year. Alex, whose contempt for women like his mother causes him to use and debase a string of so-called “sluts” at home, shows a more sensitive side. Julie can step out of her older sister’s shadow and feel special in her own right. And Kyle, who usually copes with Alex’s abuse by distancing himself from those around him, is able to breathe, feel safe, and connect with others.
Still, the summer home can’t remain a haven forever. Misunderstandings, jealousy, and hypocrisy gradually chip away at the tenuous peace the teenagers establish in the summer, and when Katie’s big secret is finally revealed, the peace is destroyed completely.
Pieces of Us is a story about lies, secrets, judgments, and the way a person’s ghosts haunt not just them, but the others around them as well. I won’t lie and tell you that the events in this book are easy to read about. It’s an upsetting and often ugly story, with a great deal of swearing, sex, bullying, and abuse. No one should ever have to suffer the way the main characters do; and yet, the things that happen in this book happen every day in the real world.
That, in a nutshell, is why I would recommend Pieces of Us. As sad as it is, it reminds people that abuse and sexism are still out there and need to be stopped. It calls attention to the injustices that go on every day, including the injustice of unequal standards for men and women.
Ironically, the fact that this injustice does exist is made evident by one of the reviews of the book that I read on Goodreads. The reviewer bashes Katie, calling her a slut because of certain choices she makes in the book. This shocked and deeply disappointed me, as it means that the reviewer missed the whole point of the novel. Katie is a victim, and yet people in the story, and even that Goodreads reviewer, see her as a villain. The blame is placed on her rather than on those who really deserve it. This happens all too often, and I think that’s part of the book’s message.
The themes aren’t the only strengths of Pieces of Us. Something else that really stood out to me was the complexity of the characters. Even though Alex, Kyle, Katie, and Julie all did things throughout the course of the novel that made me wince, I was able to understand the motivations behind their actions. Even when they let me down and I found myself wishing they’d made different choices, I couldn’t help but pity the characters. Alex in particular struck me as a tragic character. Even though he’s the least sympathetic of the four protagonists, and the most culpable, I found myself wanting him to be better. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the decent guy he could’ve been, which made the guy he was that much more frustrating.
One criticism I do have about Pieces of Us is that, while all of the events in this book can and do happen in real life, the ways some of them happen in the novel seem like a stretch. For example, there’s a scene when one of the characters is pressured into doing something distasteful. Although clearly reluctant to perform the distasteful task, that character concedes almost instantly with very little arm-twisting. It seemed unrealistic and detracted from the novel.
Still, Pieces of Us is definitely worth reading. It’s a tough book, but a powerful one, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience it.